A San Jose tobacco shop and LGBTQ center form unlikely partnership
Craig Stanley and Gabrielle Antolovich bump elbows outside the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center and the Mission Pipe Smoke Shop on The Alameda in San Jose. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Seated next to each other, they look like an odd couple.

But two community leaders have forged an unlikely partnership — and it’s helping LGBTQ youth in unexpected ways.

When the popular Crema Coffee on The Alameda closed one of stores, most San Joseans expected the space to be filled by another cafe or restaurant. Instead, a smoke shop moved in — right next to the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center, where many youth gather for support and resources.

While the move initially raised eyebrows, the neighbors are making it work. On a recent afternoon, Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the center, and Craig Stanley, owner of Mission Pipe Smoke Shop, joked about the number of lesbians who frequent the smoke shop.

“There’s a lot of people in our community who like cigars,” Antolovich said. “You’re gonna have to have a gay night.”

Gabrielle Antolovich and Craig Stanley swap jokes in the Billy DeFrank center’s front office. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Though it seems like an unlikely partnership, the two have become each other’s eyes and ears while businesses along The Alameda struggled or closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mission Pipe moves down the block

Mission Pipe Smoke Shop, which Stanley said is the oldest tobacco shop in Santa Clara County, in October moved next to the Billy DeFrank center from its former location next to Five Guys.

Stanley said he and his wife were worried about potential conflicts, given the health risk posed by smoking, especially among youth, and general distaste for tobacco smoke.

“My wife and I talked about it, and we were concerned originally when we moved into here,” Stanley said.

Antolovich said she learned about it when her new neighbors moved in.

“I didn’t hear it, I saw it,” Antolovich said, laughing. She said her main worry was that the smoke would bother the center’s visitors and volunteers, and that someone would file a complaint.

However, Antolovich decided to take a mindful approach to resolving the conflict before it arose.

“I have trained our volunteers that we tell the truth to each other as a way of being mindful of what is going on, not to berate. … That was my approach with Craig,” Antolovich said. She started talking to Stanley about the smell of smoke.

Gabrielle Antolovich poses outside the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center on The Alameda in San Jose. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

“I said, ‘OK, the smoke does come down, but I don’t want you to feel like I’m attacking you or berating you. I want to troubleshoot with you,’” Antolovich said. “You should have seen his face … he was so happy.”

Stanley said he’s building a heavily-ventilated lounge for patrons to use when indoor recreation is permitted again, as well as installing shades and fans to redirect smoke from the patio away from the Billy DeFrank center.

The center is currently closed due to the pandemic.

“It isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and we don’t want to offend anybody,” Stanley said. He hopes to have the upgrades completed before the center reopens, especially since the center generally hosts between 1,500 to 2,000 visitors and volunteers during the week.

Craig Stanley whiffs a less-aggressive flavor of tobacco in Mission Pipe Smoke Shop on The Alameda in San Jose. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Stanley is also remodeling the building to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, with plans to install a lift and ramp up to the patio. Crema Coffee closed after being hit with an ADA lawsuit.

Looking out for one another

Antolovich said Stanley has helped protect the center during a period of unrest along The Alameda. Residents and business owners have noted a rise in crime, including vandalism and attempted break-ins, in recent months as the pandemic shuttered many businesses.

Recently, Stanley called police after he approached a man sleeping in the center’s main entrance who brandished a knife.

“It’s a dangerous situation, but we look out for each other’s businesses,” Stanley said. “She’s done the same thing for me.”

Antolovich said she’s grateful for support from Stanley and other business owners along The Alameda.

“We —  like everyone on The Alameda — have suffered break-ins and safety issues,” Antolovich said. “We’re a nonprofit, but we support small businesses.”

The partnership represents unity in the face of hardship during a time when the nation is reeling from deep political division, including the violent takeover by Trump supporters at the nation’s Capitol.

“Once you open up to each other, then things work out better,” Antolovich said. “Nothing has to be a problem. And that’s how I feel things need to be done.”

Craig said he’s grateful for Antolovich’s willingness to work things out.

“The people that are the least judgmental people are the LGBTQ community, because that’s something that they’ve suffered most of their lives,” Stanley said. “We couldn’t ask for better neighbors.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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