LGBTQ+

Last Black-Owned Gay Bar In New York City Is Rallying To Survive COVID-19

Alibi Lounge is one of many queer bars in NYC crowdfunding to stay afloat during a historic economic downturn.

In 2016, Alexi Minko opened Alibi Lounge in Harlem after seeing there were no LGBTQ+ establishments near his home. Malik Saaka helped get exposure for the GoFundMe campaign. | Tahseen Rabbi
In 2016, Alexi Minko opened Alibi Lounge in Harlem after seeing there were no LGBTQ+ establishments near his home. Malik Saaka helped get exposure for the GoFundMe campaign. | Tahseen Rabbi

When the coronavirus temporarily shuttered businesses across the country, Alexi Minko was nearly ready to give up on his bar, Alibi Lounge. 

“I was 75% done with the business,” Minko said to NowThis. “I was wondering, was it worth it?”

But after a prolific GoFundMe campaign and what he describes as a renewed sense of responsibility, Minko said Alibi Lounge is thriving, even in the middle of a pandemic. 

The Harlem-based establishment is reportedly the last Black-owned gay bar in New York City. Minko, who is originally from Gabon, opened Alibi after moving to the neighborhood in 2015.

“I fell in love with my neighborhood. I fell in love with my street,” Minko said. “[But] I walked about 20, 30, blocks, and I didn’t see anything that represented the LGBT image whatsoever.”

Though Minko’s primary career was in law, he had experience opening bars in partnership with others. By June 2016, he officially opened Alibi Lounge’s doors. Minko said he’s proud of what he created: a place where LGBTQ+ people in Harlem can go to feel “automatically accepted, understood, and embraced.”

“We want to have places where we feel like we can identify with the culture, with the atmosphere, with the sound, with the lights, with the music, with the people that go to these places,” he said. 

This March, Alibi Lounge temporarily closed due to the coronavirus. Minko said he was rejected twice for assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which chains including Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House were not. He then reached out to the Small Business Association's Network for LGBT Businesses and got approved for a PPP loan. 

But the money wasn’t enough to cover mounting rent and utility bills and sales tax.

“All of a sudden, we had no revenue, no income, no activity, and unfortunately, it put a dent on something that was already very precarious,” Minko said. “Running a small business, especially like a bar/restaurant, it’s a lot of work for no money.”

The pandemic has hurt businesses across the United States. But for queer establishments – which have historically operated as community centers and safe spaces for marginalized people – the threat is cultural, too, especially during Pride month. The owners of the Stonewall Inn, a historic gay bar in the West Village, told the New York Times that last year, “hundreds of thousands of people” came to their bar throughout Pride month. 

“Now that’s just not happening,” Stacey Lentz, a co-owner of Stonewall, said. 

An iconic NYC lesbian bar, Henrietta Hudson, might not re-open until next spring, according to the Times. “The bar business is recession proof — it’s not pandemic proof, though,” owner Lisa Cannistraci told NBC News.

The owners of both Stonewall Inn and Henrietta Hudson have started GoFundMe campaigns to keep their bars open. And though he was initially uncomfortable asking for help, Minko also launched a GoFundMe in May with the goal of raising just $6,000. Soon after, Alibi Lounge opened for takeout drinks and appetizers. 

The money was slow to come in at first. But then Minko encountered Malik Saaka, a 21-year-old, who helped bring significantly more attention to the GoFundMe campaign.

“I was in Harlem with some friends, not really doing anything, just being useless,” Saaka said. “And I was like, how can we give back to the community? I was like, how can we give back to like a local Black business? And let's make it a gay one.” 

Saaka said he was struck by Minko’s dedication keeping Alibi open. He began asking Minko about the business and how he was able to stay afloat during the pandemic.

“And to me, that’s what it’s all about,” Minko said. “I want these kids to ask me those questions: Hell well, how did he do it? And can I do it?”
After Minko mentioned the GoFundMe, Saaka and his friends, energized with a desire to help the community, took to social media and publicized the campaign. Within three days, the GoFundMe surpassed its original goal of $6,000 and ended up raising more than $50,000. As of June 30, the campaign has raised more than $118,000. 

Minko recently hired Saaka and took him on as a sort of apprentice. Saaka, who hopes to one day own a music publishing business, said his responsibilities include handling press requests and outreach for the GoFundMe and planning future renovations for the bar. 

“The way that I look at this bar experience and Alexi teaching me how management and things like that work and ownership work is it's given me the tools that I feel like I didn't get in college,” Saaka said. 

Minko credits everyone who contributed to the GoFundMe for keeping Alibi Lounge viable. Newcomers have been visiting the bar and thanking him for fighting to keep the space open. Minko said the positive feedback, monetary and emotional, have imbued him with a fresh sense of purpose. 

“They are telling you: you are responsible for making sure that the doors remain open,” he said.