Dorothea Gamble: Mentor and a true inspiration

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Dorothea Gamble

As we wrap up Black History Month, I decided to check out a retail spot that I’ve been reading about lately. Trunc is a unique boutique on 2nd street, just down from the Piazza. Trunc is more than a store; it’s an experience. In addition to the beautiful interior and variety of products for sale, the two proprietors, Dorthea Gamble and Dagmar Mitchell, act as mentors to many of the artists showcased in the store. Throughout February, they have had receptions and events each week, something that they will continue to offer in upcoming months. I took a moment to put down my wine and cheese at one of the receptions to speak to co-owner Gamble. 

Where are you from? 

I’m from Central Jersey. Red Bank.

I’m not familiar with Red Bank. What was it like?

For me, it was the real shore area. It’s surrounded by shores: Long Branch, Oceanport, Deal, Monmouth Beach, Asbury Park — all the beaches. Of course, I never went to the beach, but I grew up there. 

My next question was going to be if you were a beach baby! 

Noooo! Noooo! I was not a beach baby at all. You don’t go where you already know; you always want to go to places you don’t know. 

Where did you go on vacation?

We didn’t actually get to go anywhere. We couldn’t afford it. I grew up extremely poor, so there were no vacations whatsoever. None. 

What did you do for fun?

There wasn’t much time for that. I’m the eldest of the kids, and I took care of my siblings while my mother worked. But as for my pastimes, I was extremely shy, and I used to draw on my bedroom walls. I used little pencils because there were no crayons. I also spent a lot of time making dollhouses and clothes for my Barbie doll, then I started making clothes for myself, and later I started collecting things for when I moved out. 

What would you collect?

Anything I would need for my apartment. I knew I was going to move out at some point, so I planned for about three years before I knew I could actually move out. I used that time to collect pots and pans, dishtowels, toasters, linens — everything I could get my hands on except for big pieces, so that all I had to do when I finally got my own place was get furniture. 

What age was that?

I was 22 when I was finally able to get my own place. 

So you’re not an only child? 

No, I have four brothers and four sisters. I’m the eldest of the bunch. Most of them are gone now, with the exception of three sisters and a brother. 

Wow, so you did have a lot of responsibilities.

Oh yes, I was the mother figure for the most part. My mother did domestic work until she got a job in a nursing home. But most of my life she did domestic work. Actually, my first job was as a housekeeper. 

It sounds like you were a creative child. 

Yes, everyone in my family is creative. My father created art, and he was a chef. My mother was the DIY queen. She made everything around the house, and all of my sisters and my brothers drew or did something artistic. But I think that’s what you did back then; people did things by hand.

Who was a favorite teacher?

Her name was Mrs. Ralston. She was the first African American female teacher at our school. She was a very petite woman, and she was beautiful. What she used to do was she would invite us to her house, and she would teach us different lessons, like one time I remember she taught us all how to eat out properly. All about place settings and proper etiquette, exposed us to different types of foods, the whole nine yards. I totally admired her and aspired to be like her. The second teacher I admired was a Caucasian man; his name was Mr. Hurd. He had hair down to his shoulders, and he was soooo cool. He was the coolest man ever. He didn’t see color; he was super nice. 

So did you have a crush on Mrs. Ralston?

No! Because I didn’t come out until I was, let’s see, 33. I had no idea about any kind of lesbian community whatsoever. All I knew was that I didn’t like men. I still dealt with them because that was what was expected of you, but I hated every minute of it. So no, I didn’t have a crush on her, but later, when I went to school in New York and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), I had a teacher who had a crush on me. At that point, I had started to realize what my sexual preference was. 

Did you go to FIT after high school?

No, not out of high school. It was three years later. 

What was going on in between?

I had a son. His name is Ian. I had him when I was 21, and he is now 43. 

Get out! You look like you’re 43! 

Thanks, but I’m not. Ian is a grown man now. He’s an artist too. He did all the art on the walls in here in our store.

Nice. So the creativity continues to the next generation. So talk to me about what it was like when you finally did come out?

It was the most amazing thing ever because — well, first I met this woman at a club. I used to go to gay clubs all the time even before I acknowledged anything, because I absolutely loved the music, and it was a place where you could be free. Then I saw this woman who I thought was attractive. I never thought of her in a sexual way; I just thought she was really cool looking. But when she finally spoke to me, I realized that I was attracted to her. Somehow we ended up dating, and we were together for 13 years. 

Wow! So you like to commit to things.

I do, I really do. Every relationship I’ve been in has been at least five years. 

So you had your son before you came out. When did you talk to him about it?

You know, my mother figured it out after seeing the same woman with me at every holiday and every family function, but I never really said it for like seven years, and we were together for 13. I mean everybody knew it, but it was never spoken about. I just finally told my son seven years ago. 

What kind of difference did it make to say the words out loud?

That I was a lesbian? Oh my God, a big difference. It was a relief to say it out loud. I felt more complete, and I didn’t have to change pronouns. I didn’t have to hide anymore. Now my son and I talk about it freely. Prior to that, he knew, but we never actually spoke about it before. And his half-sister is gay, which I didn’t know until we started talking. 

How did you end up in a boutique on 2nd street?

It’s a long story. My partner Dagmar and I bought the building in 1999. We’re partners in business and life. The building was stolen from us a few years later.

Stolen?

There’s a little thing called adverse possession in the city of Philadelphia; it’s a really old law that states if you find a property that’s vacant, you can stay there for 10 years, and if you pay the taxes, it can become your building. But what happens is that thieves take advantage of it. In our case, they went down to city hall and put their names on the deed, and suddenly it said that they owned our building. 

Even though you already had a deed?

Yes, we didn’t even know they’d done it until we got a call from a news station. Someone left a note in our mailbox saying, I think someone stole your building. We called her, and she told us what was going on. There was a family that was stealing properties, at least 50 buildings. As I mentioned, the rule was that the person had to live there for 10 years, but the person on the deed was only 20, so right off, it was suspect. We had to go to court, with the district attorney’s help, and pay for a lawyer to get it back in our names. It cost thousands of dollars too. 

And I understand that on top of that, when it came time to start the business, you had a hard time getting an improvement loan. 

Ugh! As a person of color, it’s almost impossible to get a bank loan. And as a person of color, a woman and a senior? Forget it. We had to do it with our little savings and family help. We also got money from a hard money lender who ripped us off. But we persevered, and here we are. 

Good for people to know. Who came up with the idea for a boutique?

We both did. Dagmar used to own a floral business, so she has that kind of business savvy, and I come from over 30 years of retail experience, so it was a perfect match. We both grew up around artists and thought there was a need to support artists who were talented but may not have a commercial following yet. We opened on the 13th of October in 2018.

What was that first day like?

It’s so funny because we were empty compared to now. I think we had three tables of merchandise, which, to us, was a big accomplishment. Now, a year later, our stock has tripled, and here we are hosting events and selling wares, and people seem to like us! 

But this is more than just a place to come and buy pretty things. It’s a place to learn and explore. 

Yes, we work hand-in-hand with the artists we invite on board. We teach them how to price their artwork or goods, what will sell, etc. Every single product has a story behind it, and we display the artist’s bio next to their work along with their inspiration. Everything here has to be beautiful, but it also has to be functional. 

What stories moved you?

We have one artist on board; her name is Indy Stone, and when I first saw her stuff, I said, “It’s beautiful, but I can’t sell it.” But I’ll take a few for Christmas. Now I can’t keep them in stock! We also have an artist Allison Stackpole. Generations of women in her family were given whistles to wear around their necks for protection. Inspired by that, she created BLO Vintage Jewelry, a line of accessories with a rustic whistles attached. She markets them especially to women on college campuses, as a safety measure.

What’s the most unusual item here?

Unusual? I prefer to say unique! I started with an artist named Dindga McCannon six months ago. She has a clothing line and some art quilts. She’s 72 years old. Recently Johnson & Johnson went out of business and had an auction and sold a piece that she’d sold to them years ago. They put it on the cover of the catalog, and it went for $160,000! It blew my mind, and we have more of her pieces right here in the store! 

Tell me about some of the events here?

Every maker that we have in the store has to have an event here. It’s a great way for them to get exposure and a good way for us to meet new people. Generally it’s complimentary small bites, wine, shopping and good people. I’m totally tickled by how successful it’s been. Tomorrow we’re having a free “Brown Paper” art workshop with Dindga, which I’m really excited about. Last week we had a chef do a night here, and we had some unbelievable food. Whatever people’s passions are, that’s what we present. We have a children’s book series coming up; we have an artist that works with dried flowers who will do a workshop as well. If you follow Trunc Artisans on Instagram, you can see everything that’s coming up

And being an LGBT business, you seem to have a lot of LGBT artists. 

Not as many as I would like to have. I only have two, a photographer and a book writer. Oh wait, I have three, no, five. [Laughing] OK, I have more than I realized! But I still would like to include more LGBT artists. And eventually, we plan to expand to create other revenue streams, most likely eyewear or a cafe on a different floor. 

That’s great, so let’s wrap up with random questions, what painting would you want to travel into?

It would probably be a Modigliani. He did portraits, and all his subjects always have these long necks and oval faces. If I was in a painting, I’d want to be in there. 

What’s the longest line you ever stood in?

It would probably be trying to get into Studio 54. I didn’t stay though, they pick you from the line based on subjective criteria, and I was like, “I’m not waiting here for someone to validate me,” so I left. 

What would be the title of your autobiography?

“Cycle of Life” That’s how Dagmar and I operate, what we give and get from each other, what motivates us, and what we get from our environment. It’s all part of the cycle of life. 

Best celebrity encounter?

I was working at Tiffany’s in New York, and Robert De Niro came in. I’ve loved him forever, and I thought I was going to lose my mind. 

What song always makes you happy when you hear it?

Alecia Keys, “New York.”

Favorite TV show as a kid?

Don’t laugh, “The Flintstones.” 

Describe yourself in three words.

Fair, compassionate and hard-working.