I intended to complete my final draft of this letter on Wednesday. Instead, I joined an action at Portland City Hall in solidarity with our neighbors who are experiencing houselessness. The voices I heard that first night were powerful and vulnerable and FED THE FUCK UP, and the fire built by these impacted comrades has grown into a blaze that won’t be put out. Étaín’s stated mission has always centered “community.” Every day at the encampment at City Hall I’m learning more and more about what that really means.
Amidst this months-long tidal wave of monumental human action, the news I’m here to deliver feels easy: Étaín will close permanently by the end of September. Why? Because I’m mad as hell. Our city and our society consistently prioritize business and property over the safety and dignity of our most vulnerable community members—people who know what they need and are continually gaslit, patronized, and ignored—and I’m tired of straddling the line between business owner and activist. I opened the shop with a set of values that have evolved and shifted over the years, but the past few months have confirmed that the shop cannot survive with these values intact. And that is absolutely fine. Because guess what? It’s just a business. We need so much more than that right now—we have always needed so much more.
This is a declaration of intent. This is a farewell address. It’s also a love letter. I want to tell you what I miss: I miss impromptu shop visits from queer and trans fam; I miss first binder fittings and first bra fittings for folks of all ages; I miss witnessing those sweet moments when parents and guardians step up to affirm their trans kids and the even sweeter moments of trans youth holding each other tight in the absence of affirming adults; I miss in-depth conversations about gender by the register; I miss shared excitement over glitter and neon; I miss friendly waves from Congress St during a full-on zone-out session; I miss immersive catwalks and freaky photoshoots; I miss Backdoor Vibes and my neighbors at the Jewel Box; I miss my mail carrier; I miss after-hours karaoke and dance parties—I miss you.
These are the things I don’t miss: sales numbers, profit margins, purchase orders, credit card processors, trade shows, merchandising. I don’t miss the actual business of retail.
The most meaningful aspects of Étaín are now paused indefinitely, leaving behind only the transaction and the safety protocol. Having teetered on the precipice for months before COVID-19 hit, I have ultimately decided that closing the shop is the only path forward. It just doesn’t make sense to claw our way through a global pandemic when my priorities are definitively elsewhere. Although there is of course some sadness attached to this transition, the feelings of agency and relief are far stronger.
I was 25 years old when I opened Étaín back in 2014, and today I turn 32. A lot has changed since then. I’ve changed. In the beginning, I was a feminist with a fat kid experience that resulted in a perpetual shadow of body shame and self-hate. I didn’t want that for other young people or for anyone. I also had a substantial amount of privilege and access that I had only just begun to unpack. I was able to borrow start-up funds from my supportive and financially stable parents. This afforded me professional flexibility that brought with it a complicated family dynamic. They believed in my dream of building a space for “women” of all body sizes and shapes to feel welcome and safe, a space free of harmful imagery and “the Male Gaze.” At the same time, I didn’t believe in gender. As I found affirmation through queer community in Portland, I grew stronger. I came out as queer, as non-binary, as trans. For a few years, Étaín was a couple of steps ahead of “Mack” the individual, as if paving the way. I wanted to provide an environment for others to explore and develop their own identities, and eventually I allowed myself the same. My shop and I have evolved alongside each other, but there’s one issue around which we can’t seem to reconcile: capitalism.
The temporary closure of our brick-and-mortar shop has solidified a feeling that’s been intensifying for several years. As I’ve focused the majority of my energy on work that fuels our community in more relevant ways (i.e.: mutual aid and activism), I’ve been thinking about my own relationship to capitalism and consumerism more than ever. I didn’t open a business to generate profit; I started it to offer the sort of shared space I felt was missing. I wanted to cover operating costs, pay off start-up debt, pay myself a living wage, and invest in the community I was aiming to serve. But why did I feel the best route to community was through commerce? When I moved to rural Maine, I grieved this sort of access, whining that I “couldn’t walk to anything.” This was of course totally untrue: I could walk down a short dirt road to the beach, roll down a slight hill to the pond, or step into the woods at any given moment. What I meant was that I couldn’t easily walk anywhere that required a wallet.
When I decided to open a retail store, I had no idea how anti-capitalist I was. On some level, I associated autonomy, adulthood, and even personhood with proximity to purchasable goods and services. As I moved into day-to-day operations at Etain, however, I started to see how the needs of the business and the needs of the community were often at odds. Was it financially feasible to stock every bra size I could get my hands on? Not necessarily, but our core values made this non-negotiable. As I prioritized community over the “bottom line,” the business that evolved became less and less sustainable. I’m proud of the ways in which Étaín subverts traditional retail structures, but the financial aspects of running a retail business continue to exist and are not going anywhere.
All of this is to say, I’ve been unlearning consumerism the way I’ve been unlearning gender the way I’ve been unlearning internalized fatphobia the way I’ve been unlearning patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, colonialism, ableism—the list goes on.
In my first update, I noted that “I will be prioritizing mutual aid and self-care over any commercial operations for as long as this crisis continues.” While I doubt I need to frame for you everything that’s been going on these days, I will say that the bulk of our crises are not new, that we ought to have been placing these issues above business and profit all along. I will say: BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER. BLACK DISABLED LIVES MATTER. HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT. ABOLISH THE POLICE. ABOLISH PRISONS. ABOLISH ICE. WABANAKI LAND BACK. FIRE JOHN JENNINGS.
I am incredibly grateful for the many people in my life who regularly remind me that profitability is not the only form of success. The shop was a catalyst for events, for photoshoots, for intimate dialogue. It was a homebase, a glorious, glitter-encrusted pitstop on our way to something bigger.
Please know how deeply I appreciate you, your support, and your being. Y’all are why Étaín has existed. Thank you to my extended family, biological and chosen. Thank you to those who have modeled, performed, collaborated, visited, brought me lunch, enabled my “15 minute” coffee breaks, shopped, not shopped, hung out, shared, critiqued, and built community with us.
And now, some logistics:
The closing process will take place over the course of 3-6 months, but we will move out of our brick-and-mortar location by the end of September. Further details will be announced as they solidify. In the meantime, we’re doing our best to uphold the system of values behind Étaín while balancing the very real financial and safety limitations.
Underthings can be scooped up at via online store, Instagram, and email requests. If you’d like to make use of existing store credit, just let us know! Individual in-store appointments and fittings are in the works. PLEASE NOTE: Beginning 8/5/20, ALL sales are final.
We will continue to distribute free chest binders and bottom binders via our Queer Underwear Accessibility Department. Q.U.A.D. has also expanded to include a store credit account to be used by folks who are experiencing financial limitations. Anyone can become a sponsor by reaching out over email or Instagram, and thank you to those who have already done so totally unprompted!
Mack / Étaín