The sounds of a hammer slamming nails into the frame for a new fancy DJ booth and power saws slicing through wood battle the humping beat of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' at G.A.Y Lounge about a week before Pride and just a couple hours before the new Mount Vernon polyglot queer spot opens up for the day.
G.A.Y's owners, Robert Gay and Joshua Pershing, who take a break from the construction craziness to chat, are upgrading for Pride, already changing and tweaking the massive room, which just opened in late April but keeps expanding, adding ideas, resulting in a bar/club/lounge/hang-out space/drag portal with very much its own vibe.
"We wanted to bring a different feel to the place, a feel we feel like Baltimore didn't really have, at least in the gay scene," Pershing says. "Especially with all the investment that's going into the city, we thought that was the perfect time to open something new and gay."
Pershing grew up in Harford County and worked for Boordy Vineyards for more than 10 years and became increasingly interested in opening up his own place and "getting into the bar industry," he says. Gay, from Lexington, Ky., spent time in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then D.C. He's been in Baltimore for about 10 years and involved in nightlife for years—though professionally, he was an accountant: "I did that for years and years and years until we started talking about this place and we kind of made it happen."
The couple found the building at 518 N. Charles St. back in December of last year. Previously the location for Ware House 518, it was sold to Pershing and Gay and G.A.Y opened on April 28. It has quickly snuck into the area as a new and necessary gay bar and one which, it seems, takes all kinds, and hosts all kinds of events. And at a moment where it feels as though gay bars are on the decline in Baltimore, even with Flavor and the reimagined Baltimore Eagle opening up recently, the Hippo's absence smarts the most and was on Pershing and Gay's mind, though they didn't intend on exactly resurrecting something like the Hippo either.
"We didn't want necessarily a club vibe where you'd be afraid to take your boyfriend because he's going to get snatched away, but something for single people and couples—basically for everyone—and some nights we have a ton of straight people here even though that name's G.A.Y," Pershing jokes.
Gay excitedly adds that the old folks from Westminster House Senior Apartments next door come in for drinks from time to time, surely a sign they're doing something right and being inclusive.
It was important for Pershing and Gay to get G.A.Y ready quickly. They "closed the deal" in early April, Gay notes, and wanted to be open as soon as possible for Pride and for the summer.
"We turned it around really quick because summer time can make or break a business and we wanted to be open for summer to give people a sense of the place," Pershing says.
G.A.Y also offers a light dinner menu in the evening with options such as goat cheese balls ($9) and prosciutto and fig flatbread ($10), and its drag brunch on Sundays has become especially popular, along with a constant flow of drag shows.
"We're adding TVs, I really didn't want TVs for the space but they're gonna be where that tile work is at and the tile work really speaks for itself, but it's gonna be conducive for show tunes night and music videos and you know, put one of them on the sports channels when sports are on," Gay says. "But we're not a sports bar. Someone asked if we were going to put a pool table back there, I said 'a pool table?!'"
It would be hard to mistake G.A.Y for a sports bar though. It has high ceilings, a mezzanine, and its design scans as fancy—a chandelier, columns, a fireplace, ornate tile work, and some couches—but not too fancy rather, in a way that's more inclusive than exclusive, a decadent hang-out spot, like something you see in a Kenneth Anger movie or Hercules & Love Affair music video. When I took a recent trip there to meet two friends, G.A.Y had just opened at 4 p.m. on a weekday, and enjoying a few beers in the massive, mostly empty space felt inviting rather than overwhelming, like I'd rented out a giant hotel suite I couldn't afford because well, fuck it (also: the place looks really cool on Instagram). And when G.A.Y is crowded into the night, shifting to a dance club atmosphere, it feels like a big private event or friend-packed party. And despite Gay's sports bar caveat, watching basketball here would honestly be preferable to doing it somewhere surrounded by too many televisions and excited, screaming men; or OK, the wrong kind of excited and screaming dudes.
"We're always changing the space and bringing in new elements, always trying to add a new element to the picture," Pershing says.
They've already made a habit of bringing in non-local DJs and performers.
"Every two weeks we've had someone come in from out of state, so there's an entertainment aspect with your vodka and cranberry," Gay says.
And getting G.A.Y ready for Pride has paid off. G.A.Y is involved in a number of Pride and Pride-related events, including, Pershing notes, a sign-making event for Planned Parenthood: "We're doing an event for Planned Parenthood, which is awesome, and DJ Tracy Young's flying in from Miami, to do a DJ set on Saturday. We're constantly adding to the space; that's why there's the DJ booth so we can have big name DJs."