Zi Aronow, who has been organizing the Feminist Flea Market and Craft Fair via the production company House Cat since 2018, has created temporary space to drive business to local artists and makers, many of whom are queer and/or BIPOC. In order to create a more permanent space to keep that momentum going, Aronow has opened a physical location to sell the work of many of those artists. The shop Baby Tooth launched in the Bok building on September 9.
The part retail, part community space is a collaboration between Aronow, the mutual aid initiative Homies Helping Homies, and graphic designer Corinne Dodenhoff. Five percent of Baby Tooth sales will go to Homies Helping Homies.
Patrons of Baby Tooth will be able to shop for jewelry, clothing, ceramics, candles, records and much more. Some of its vendors include Rockers Closet, Laks Jewelry, MOMO Metals, the clothing brand Ugly Squid, Akhtarshenas Studios and Fluff Organix, among many others.
Part of the impetus for opening Baby Tooth, Aronow said, was the desire to create a more consistent space for people to support independent makers, and avoid some of the uncertainties that came with organizing large events during a pandemic. However, Aronow prioritizes creating a space for community.
“I want the space truly to be a community space where people can come and learn about what’s going on in Philly, how they can support each other,” Aronow said. “I think what has gotten lost in mutual aid is, it’s not like nonprofits where you’re just giving money to someone and you’re walking away. I think having a space where people can come and feel like ‘I have something to offer here,’ and then see what other people have to offer them, is really nice.”
Homies Helping Homies is a community mutual aid initiative that distributes food and household items in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, a predominantly Black neighborhood that has faced enduring poverty and a scarcity of basic resources. The pandemic only worsened those conditions. Homies Helping Homies has received a lot of support from the queer community since the get-go.
“It just made sense,” Homies Helping Homies co-founder Kevin Bass said about partnering with Aronow. “It works out because we worked together before in terms of trying to maintain our efforts in South Philly. It’s great that we’re working with Baby Tooth to keep things going.”
Aronow said that Bass and co-founder Ant Adams have had ideas for hosting workshops and other initiatives in the Baby Tooth space, in addition to collecting donations. Some of those workshops would encompass design and skill-sharing classes, and possibly some financial literacy classes based on demand.
“And then just give more exposure to people living in Point Breeze,” Bass said. “I was very fortunate growing up having things like art and design to give me perspective, so I feel like I have to pay it forward as a person of color.”
In addition to Homies Helping Homies, Dodenhoff, who does work in graphic design, illustration, brand identity, web design, consulting and education, will also use the space as her studio. She is a self-taught designer whose mantra is “everyone deserves good design,” Aronow said. As such, she frequently does work pro bono or on a sliding scale, and leads workshops to share her skills. Some of her design clients include Modest Mouse, the Philly-born band Japanese Breakfast, World Cafe Live, and a variety of small businesses, organizations and bands.
“I’ve always loved to learn and love to share my knowledge with others,” Dodenhoff said in a press release. “It’s not lost on me that Bok was a school building and I intend to honor that by sharing what I’ve learned throughout my tenure as a designer and a business owner. Gatekeeping is not what I’m about; good design should be accessible to everyone — and it should make you happy.”
Aronow acknowledged the controversy that underpinned Bok’s transformation from Bock technical High School, which was shut down in 2013 due to financial reasons, to a building bought by a developer that initially housed the pop-up restaurant Le Bok Fin. Bok is now home to a variety of businesses, including a bakery, print shops, a recording studio and a host of other artisan shops and studios.
“I have complicated feelings about being in Bok in terms of just the innate gentrification that is happening with the existence of a space like this,” Aronow said. “However, there are so many small businesses here, so many artists here — it feels like the perfect spot for a shop that’s supporting local business, supporting mutual aid orgs.”
Some of Baby Tooth’s vendors have studios at Bok, and some of Dodenhoff’s clients also work in the building. Aronow pointed out that the South Philly Community Fridge, an org that partners with local grocery stores to provide produce and other healthy foods that would otherwise be tossed, has a location outside Bok. Plus, the food initiative Double Trellis, which provides prepped meals and distributes groceries to communities experiencing housing insecurity, cooks out of Bok.
“There’s a lot of orgs that are doing amazing community work that are also right here in the building, which is really exciting,” Aronow said.
Many of the other Bok business owners that Aronow knows are queer, they said.
“[Our neighbors and I] were joking that our floor was going to have a bunch of gay parties down here, because a bunch of us are queer,” they said. “Philly’s gay, so there’s probably a lot of queer people around here. Definitely on the first floor, which is really fun. We’re all excited to be hosting events together, all the queers.”