Mushroom Bite

Big doors, big boys, big synagogue, big satmars, big job, big faucet

 LOCATION Williamsburg
RENT $2,500 [sublet]
SQUARE FEET 1,850 [raw loft in 1910 industrial building]
OCCUPANTS Gile Downes [co-director, Ubu Gallery]; Sarah-Kate Beaumont [owner, Beaumont Framing]; Owen Downes [17 months old]

Those Doric columns outside, everything's so oversize in this building—big, high doors, like in a dream. I feel like I ate the wrong side of the mushroom. Now I'm so small. I can't reach the doorknob. [Sarah] Gile's very tall. Owen's going to be very tall. Our space before was so small—700 square feet. [Gile] I'd lived there nine years, Boerum Hill. There're about 75 units here. [Sarah] This is one of the biggest.

How so? [Gile] Each floor has a master tenant. They have the lease on the entire floor and subdivide it. [Sarah] Everybody here's an artist or artisan. One of our floor's master tenants was just in the Whitney Biennial.

Owen Downes, Gile Downes, and Sarah-Kate Beaumont
photo: Brian Kennedy
Owen Downes, Gile Downes, and Sarah-Kate Beaumont

This is a Hasidic neighborhood—Satmar sect. They came from Hungary in World War II. I saw a store called Schlesinger Shoes—fancy Italian shoes for Hasidic women. Satmars are building the largest synagogue in the world here, for 15,000 worshippers. Their families are huge, eight, 10 children—57,000 Satmars reportedly live in South Williamsburg. The other day there were thousands of chickens in crates. They were waving the chickens. Then they . . .

Satmars ran out of housing space years ago. The artisten have been moving in. There are reports of neighborhood flyers: One asked the "Master of the Universe" to "please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they shall not come to our residence to ruin it." There's a big plastic banner across from the Gretsch condos. [Limestone fireplaces; $550 a square foot.] It says, "The neighborhood is not welcoming the Gretsch Building. We need affordable housing."

On the other side, there are non-Hasidics renting from Hasidic landlords at huge rates. You're from near Reading, England. Gile is from Portland, Oregon, where his mother makes felt Christmas ornaments. Let's look in Sarah's frame shop, for which you made an entirely separate entrance. I work with conservators, private collectors. [We look around at the samples of frame corners on the wall.]

Picture frames tell you that you are entering a separate and strange world. [Gile] This loft was essentially raw when we got it—concrete, open. We had to build a bathroom, new kitchen, walls. [Sarah] I looked at renting a separate space for the business. But we would have ended up paying much more. But because we have a child, we needed to make this safe. [Gile] If we had no child, we probably would have lived with the lead paint. We had proved our business model was viable, but we couldn't grow it in the other apartment. [Gile is pushing Owen on his tricycle while he talks.] We said, Let's see if we can pull money together—friends-and-family fundraising scheme. We did it on the thinnest, most frayed of shoestrings. It would have been much more comfortable if we'd had a lot more money. I have to go change his diaper. [Sarah] There's no grant, no investor friend, no trust fund. [Gile] We sold things—Sarah's paintings, my expensive stereo. We put our wedding gift money into the business.

If you laid down the scenario in any other city, well, it would be absurd to spend tens of thousands of dollars building out raw space from which you will not be able to extract material investment. People in other places . . . [Sarah] England! [Gile] . . . can't get their heads around how expensive it is. Thousands of dollars would have gotten us a broom closet in the Bronx. We were really loath to spend money on projects we can't take with us. Ultimately, we want to buy. But we've done this in a way that will potentially appeal to someone else. Though I doubt that we could extract any fixture fee. Maybe we'll take the faucet out of the sink. I bought a restaurant-quality faucet. Why should I leave that behind?

A few years of success—you won't even notice the faucet on the way out. You won't even remember its name.


schlesinger@villagevoice.com

 
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