Compelling Narratives at the End of the Earth

By Kevin Assam

After 15 years, Arcadia is open year-round and features handmade, ethically sourced, curated items all with compelling stories. Founder Jay Gurewitsch is happy to share these along with free shipping through to boot. After starting out in an insolvent Tom of Finland storefront in Chelsea, NYC, Jay would later settle in the queer mecca, Provincetown. Now, he discusses pushing back in the classroom as a child, explains how one product, in particular, is flying off his shelves and reveals why he thinks more adults should lean into the comfort of plush toy creations. 

How were you taught to investigate and what were some of the earliest things you debunked?

In the second grade, I had a Talmud teacher who had an incredibly heavy accent. I had a hard time understanding anything he said, and it was the first time I was learning Talmud. I was taught always to ask questions. I would repeatedly raise my hand and only to be yelled at again by the teacher. After a few weeks of this, the teacher got so fed up that he threw me out and demanded that I call my mother and have her come immediately or he would ban me from class. I was a very well-behaved student. Teachers always loved me. I was petrified. My mother left work to talk to the teacher while I sat outside, thinking I would be murdered on the spot. I heard him raising his voice. Then I heard my mother raising her voice. The door opened, and my mother came out and practically hissed at me, “don’t you dare stop asking questions in class. If you don’t understand something, you ask the teacher. If he doesn’t explain it to you, tell me, and I will fix it.” Let’s just say that the teacher answered my questions for the rest of the year.

Is there a standout narrative that you were able to communicate through a successful product of Arcadia?

My standout success story of this season is undoubtedly my brooms. Truly functional works of art, they are made by one of the few remaining master broom makers in New England. He uses a millennia-old method of making brooms using broomcorn — a type of sorghum instead of straw — that must be soaked in formaldehyde to keep it from rotting. A well-maintained broomcorn broom can easily last for generations without any chemicals involved. The handles are made by a Shaker community in Pennsylvania. Each broom is signed by the artist and is visually stunning because the broomcorn is dyed to look like a rainbow. This is not an LGBT element, although it obviously works very well as an LGBT selling point.

Should adults make public displays of plush toys a thing?

The world is often a cruel place. People and the larger universe might benefit from keeping their cuddle buddy nearby throughout their day. It can only make the universe a better place for everyone.

I sell only a small percentage of my stuffed animals to what I call “chronological children.” The vast majority of them go to “non-chronological children.” The handmade, one-of-a-kind nature of most of my stuffed animals speaks to them in a particular way. I don’t sell mass-market made in China plushies. Even my plush toys are made by hand in Europe by a family-owned business in Germany. Most of my stuffed animals are actually made from recycled sweaters, sewn in Canada, so each one comes with a tag saying “handmade in Canada, one of one.”

Will LGBTQ artists and designers continue to beat back restrictions or marginalization that may narrow the markets of their creations?

I will quote President Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr, quoting Theodore Parker, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As an LGBT businessman, I’ve never knowingly discriminated against anyone for anything, except dropping one long time straight, southern female artist when it was clear from her Facebook feed that she was a rabid Trump supporter. I don’t recall much of any discrimination aimed at me in a professional context. Being a northerner in Atlanta at the trade shows was generally enough for some folks to give me a, “bless your heart.” We as a community have accomplished incredible progress in the last few decades, building on the work of pioneers as far back as the 19th century. I, like others who use that quote properly, understand that with work we will get there. I like to think that my little store at the end of the earth contributes in a tiny way towards that goal.

The interview has been condensed for cohesion and clarity

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