It may sound counterintuitive, considering pandemic-related shutdowns, but a group of 12 friends this week opened an artsy marketplace, taking advantage of a bargain deal on a formerly empty commercial space in the District. They call it theTwelve.
Tucked in a strip of buildings across from Union Market, theTwelve is a 3,600-square-foot space that includes a retail store, an art gallery and a community lounge. It opened its doors Wednesday with the intent of offering an environment that helps build connections amid a tumultuous time.
“It was really an idea birthed off of opportunity because of the pandemic that probably wouldn’t have arisen, and just really us missing togetherness, creating together. How could we kind of come out of COVID and be love and light and model the unity that we want to see?” said co-founder Lori Parkerson.
“Our timeline is that we’re doing this for the beloved community, and it’s to cultivate and grow the one we already have with each other as theTwelve, with the collaborators we are bringing on board who are kindred spirits, but also to extend it out to the city at large,” she added.
The store sells a mix of vintage and sustainable merchandise, from bamboo toothbrushes and reusable beeswax food wrap to mid-1900s glassware and hemp sweaters.
Behind it, the art gallery displays an exhibit focused on people’s relationships to meaningful objects, featuring photographs of items such as a copy of “Muppet Treasure Island” on VHS and a great-grandmother’s sugar bowl.
Toward the back next to the gallery is a large space theTwelve founders hope to convert into a community lounge to host programs such as meditation sessions and Bolivian wine-taste testing on a monthly basis.
Ms. Parkerson said the idea for the company began in July when EDENS, a retail real estate company, asked her if she wanted to use the empty space at 1262 Fifth St. NE.
Although theTwelve is opening when many other enterprises are struggling, co-founder Amira El-Gawly said she is not worried.
“I’m not concerned. Is it crazy? It’s crazy,” she said. “But do I have faith? 100%. But is it the exact opposite thing of what everyone else is doing? Yes.”
“I always had a dream to have a space in the marketplace that was different … this dream to reimagine the marketplace and leverage what is somewhat public space in a way that inspires people, that makes them feel loved, that makes them feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves,” Ms. El-Gawly said. “So what’s really cool about this project is that it hit so many notes for me as a human, as a creator, as an entrepreneur, as a friend.”
Programming for the community lounge probably won’t start until March or so due to the pandemic, Ms. Parkerson said. The programs will be ticketed events. She said the business also will follow capacity limits for retail stores and only allow three people in the store section and seven in the gallery at a time.
About every three months, the founders plan to display a new exhibit in the art gallery. The next two exhibits will be about people’s relationships with others and nature, and the last will include work from young artists about their hopes for the future.
All the gray-scale photographs of objects in the current exhibit were taken by theTwelve co-founder Obiekwe Okolo, who said he has a fascination with objects, given his background in architecture. He began taking photos of everyday items when the pandemic began.
“There’s all this cultural unrest happening and people are sort of grappling with and arguing over these big ideas,” he said. “We have all these things around us, and I feel like the more we get away from the sanctity of the artifact, the more divided we are.”
One of the items featured in the gallery is a cup that belonged to the great-grandmother of Britnie Dates, another theTwelve co-founder. She said the cup, which she suspects might be made of jade, has been in her possession for more than 10 years.
She said she liked the idea of combining retail, art and a gathering space for theTwelve and offering those different touch points for the community.
“It’s a beautiful idea to be a part of something that feels bigger than yourself,” Ms. Dates said. “Genuinely, I am incredibly excited about everyone that is a part of it, the work that they do and what everyone brings to it.”
The founders of theTwelve are renting the retail space for 12 months, until the end of December. The business is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. or by appointment at email@example.com.
The other founders include Talyah Alpern, M. Gert Barkovic, Julian Barnes, Alison Beshai, Reggie Black, Ayana Zaire Cotton, Curry Hackett and Joi Jackson.