Breaching the Velvet Rope 

Two guys brave obstacles in their efforts to open a Maxwell Park club that caters to lesbians.

So two straight guys and a lesbian walk into the bar business ... and the punch line ain't pretty. Meet Bob Huff and Adam Afuvai, who, along with Afuvai's wife Stephanie Sulivan, own Velvet, a new women's venue in Oakland's Laurel District. Each has roughly two decades in the nightclub game. Now meet veteran DJ and party promoter Page Hodel, an out lesbian who worked with Afuvai at Club Townsend. She had previously run two successful GLBT dance parties in San Francisco: The Box from 1988 to 1999, and Club Q (every Thursday at Townsend) from 1987 to 2003. And she had the street cred three straight people would need to pass muster with the dyke community.

When they decided to buy the space at 3411 MacArthur Boulevard, it was a hole-in-the-wall best known as the now-defunct American Indian bar Merel's Hilltop Tavern. Before that it was a biker hangout, says Huff, who grew up in nearby Maxwell Park and remembers seeing all the Harleys outside.

Deciding that the space was well suited to serve a niche community, Afuvai did a little market research and found that the neighborhood housed a burgeoning population of lesbians who'd been priced out of San Francisco, but lacked their own watering hole. Huff corroborated his findings, and when Afuvai asked Hodel for input, she said the place was sorely needed.

Huff says Hodel got a sweetheart deal: They let her in on the partnership with no financial commitment, but offered an equal share of the profits. While Hodel doesn't deny the arrangement, she says she contributed something money can't buy. "I know this crowd," she says. "I know the temperament of the lesbian community. I brought my heart and soul and love, and it was a complete smash success. I brought an income stream. I brought the legacy of my relationship to the community. I brought them good people that never fought. I brought them the dream scenario. I paid for all of the advertising. I paid for all of the publicity. I brought my sound system. I brought them my whole machine, which is a huge contribution."

Velvet started out well. Since the bar was a wreck, the partners gave it a facelift, straightened out the bar, added lounge furniture, erected walls, and installed Plexiglas barriers. Huff retiled the bathroom. "We called it the Extreme Dyke Makeover," Hodel says. "Like, fifteen of us went in and completely turned the place upside down. It had been a neighborhood bar that had never been cleaned, and you walked in and it smelled unbearable. We scrubbed it with Clorox." The owners invited local women to display their artwork at the bar.

When Velvet opened on March 17, the line wrapped around the block. "Around ten o'clock Adam went out and told people in the line we were at capacity, 'You can save your Saturday night,'" Huff recalls. "But people said, 'That's cool, we'll just hang out.' That showed there's a need for us."

But a successful opening is one thing, he says. The realities of running a business aren't so glamorous — and it wasn't long before things went sour. The male owners say Hodel resented them for, well, their unfortunate biological circumstances. She didn't want straight men going behind the bar, operating the cash register, or making decisions about how to run their own club.

"The crowd that came in there didn't think they were coming to Bob and Adam's club; they thought they were coming to Page's club," Hodel insists. She adds that she was dissed by some of the people the co-owners had hired. "One of the vendors they were using was extremely rude and disrespectful to me as a lesbian," she recalls. "He was a graphics designer. I worked with him. I hired him. He made promises. He missed deadlines continuously; he never called me back. When Adam called him, he called right back. If I called him, he was like, 'Fuck her.'"

The promoter's former business partners say the, er, cock-blocking went both ways. Hodel insisted they hire a majority lesbian staff, Afuvai says, and they made an effort, securing the talents of salsa DJ La Niche, hip-hop DJ Luna, and bartender Mz. Amy, all people with cachet in the LBGT community. But Afuvai complains that Hodel forbade them to bring in male artists such as Hard Knock Radio DJ Weyland Southon to host weeknight events. Hodel also was rankled when the owners casually suggested a dress code down the line — this being Oakland — banning athletic wear. "Every lesbian that walks in that door is gonna have a baseball cap," Hodel says. She also objected to her co-owners posting Craigslist ads for Velvet under "Women Seeking Women," although Huff and Afuvai insist the ads were innocuous and merely listed an events schedule.

Less than two weeks after opening night, after what she describes as "an accumulation of about five hundred fights," Hodel jumped ship. She entered the club in the wee hours, retrieved her sound system, and left behind a searing "letter of resignation" stating that she owned the club's name and demanding $2,836 for improvements she'd made to the venue. Hodel did suggest the name, Huff acknowledges, but in the context of a group brainstorming meeting — and he registered it the same day.

It was Hodel's subsequent move that blew her ex-partners away. She sent a disparaging letter to everyone on her e-mail list, announcing "with urgency and disappointment" that she'd severed her relationship with Velvet. "I cannot, in good conscience, be associated with many of the behaviors, attitudes, actions, of communications set forth by the owners of this venue," she wrote in the missive, which was promptly reposted on "Women Seeking Women." Many people thought the club had shut down. And its owners took a big financial hit.

Velvet soldiers on, however. With Hodel's exclusion of straight people and men no longer in effect, they invited Southon to bring back his party Vibes & Scribes — featuring a DJ crew of local writers and artists — on Wednesday nights. Their July 18 GirlFest kickoff party with Jennifer Johns, Chela Simone, and Aima was a hit, and the Friday night party "Sexy" — helmed by Luna and La Niche — has taken off as well. The club, still awaiting its hard-liquor license, serves beer, wine, and sangria, and Mz. Amy says she makes a wicked virgin mojito.

Trying to serve a niche community is always risky, especially when you're an outsider. Huff and Afuvai know some people won't want to patronize their club because of that, but they're determined, Huff says. "Everyone knows Adam and Bob are straight guys, but they also know that when we're in there we take care of them, walk them to their cars, keep the riff-raff out."

La Niche, who met the owners of Velvet on MySpace, admits that at times she thought they were in over their heads. "He's not going after lesbians — he's a married guy," she says of Afuvai. "He has kids. I've asked him, 'Why do you want to do this so bad? You're losing money.'"

"Dumb stubbornness; I don't know," Huff says. "We want this because we believe in it."

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