oral histories

An Oral History of Dalston Superstore

The east London LGBTQ institution is celebrating its tenth anniversary, so we asked some of the people who know it best to tell its story.

by Ben Charlie Smoke
03 May 2019, 8:30am

Photo by Roxy Lee

I am dripping with sweat. It’s running in little rivulets around the lumps of my spine and pooling in the waistband of my boxers. I’ve slicked my hair back underneath a hat, its usual waves and curls all but flattened out by moisture. Between my fingers, a pint glass fogs up as my body kicks out heat. I slide through the gyrating crowd, my bare shoulders sticking to the bare chests of those around me. We’re pulsating. Jumping, moving, dipping and swinging to a rising house beat.

There’s a sweet spot just to the right of the basement DJ booth, where the full force of the air con pumps out and the crowd jostles in search of sweet relief. Below it are a set of mirrors that light up sporadically as the flashing lights and lasers hit it. I catch a glance of my face beaming, ear to ear.

This is Dalston Superstore, an east London LGBTQ institution. Split across two floors, the venue opens from 12PM every day. Throughout the afternoon, people meet and work and eat and drink as two giant skylights upstairs flood the space with light. At the weekends, drag brunches see hungover patrons nursing mimosas as queens perform perfectly choreographed numbers to the cell block tango out on the street in the early afternoon sun.

Once the light fades and the inkiness of the night fingers its way across those skylights, the place changes. Groups of friends and lovers and others flood the bar as the music is turned up and the lights go down low. Shutters come down over shop windows looking out onto Kingsland road. Throngs turn into crowds, leaning over the bar as queens and go-go dancers teeter along it, picking their way through a maze of glasses and arms. People dance and chat and cop off with each other against the walls below queer art exhibitions, changed every couple of months. Downstairs, the basement is opened and the fun truly begins.

Dalston Superstore Cathal O'Brien
Photo by Cathal O'Brien

I am biased when I say that Dalston Superstore is my favourite LGBTQ bar in London. Not just because they let me bumble around the DJ decks once a month, but because, to me, it feels like home. A happy, comfortable enclave carved out in an erratic city. It’s a place to write, to dance, to meet my friends – ones who work there and ones who don’t. It’s a constant in a tumultuous and often hostile world. A place for those who often have no other.

This weekend, Dalston Superstore turns ten years old. To celebrate, I spoke to some of the people who know it best to tell the story of this 2,000-square-feet of queer space, and the decade that has been.

Origins and the First Five Years

Dalston Superstore Roxy Lee
Photo by Roxy Lee

Dan Beaumont [Co-Owner]: The idea for Dalston Superstore came about through running clubs and parties in other people’s venues and always finding that there were compromises. We wanted to have our own space where we could do things our own way, where everything could be as we wanted it – and to have a queer venue that was purpose built, could compete and could hold its own in terms of DJ bookings and programming. There’s a long history of gay venues being blacked out and slightly shameful, and we wanted to do something that was visibly on the high street and welcoming to all.

Matt Tucker [Co-Owner]: Looking back, opening a grassroots venue totally independently with little experience was quite a mad thing to do, especially in Dalston in the early years. But it just felt really right at the time. It was almost as if people were waiting for it to happen somehow.

Dan: It felt so vividly new when we opened. There’s a lineage – that goes back to [the pub] The George and Dragon and [club nights] Family and Boombox – of east London queer nightlife that we owe a big debt to, and it felt like a brand, shining new iteration of something queer. It was built on necessity and intuition, really, the whole idea.

Dalston Superstore Cathal O'Brien
Photo by Cathal O'Brien

Matt: The first five years were particularly chaotic, but also incredibly fun – we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time. On our opening night we didn’t even have a sound system upstairs, so someone brought a ghetto blaster in and we just played CDs off that. Also, when I bought the first furniture for upstairs I got the sizing wrong and it was actually kids' chairs and tables, so everyone was sitting at these small weird tables looking ridiculous.

Jack Soilleux Till [General Manager]: I joined in the fourth year, so my first memory was before I started working here. I’d heard there was a gay club in Dalston, and being too scared to come. I remember thinking it was a really long way from Shoreditch on the bus because I’m an idiot, but when I eventually came I remember some really good nights. I applied for a temp Christmas job and my first shift was a really, really hectic lesbian night – it was amazing.

Rachael Williams [Former Bookings Manager and DJ]: I actually got my job at Superstore a bit before the third birthday in 2012. There are so many special memories for me personally, as well as for the venue. Bicep playing a secret gig on a Tuesday. Boris from [Berghain's label] Ostgut Ton swanning about in a smoking jacket. Launching my party "Les Poppeurs" there and having all of Honey Soundsystem commenting on the logo Martin Wollerstam designed for me. It's honestly just a magical place where weird and amazing things happen.

Favourite Memory

Dalston Superstore Cathal O'Brien
Photo by Cathal O'Brien

Toby Attrill [Bookings Manager]: I was working a shift and there were three people being fairly… amorous on the dance floor in the basement. The music had ended and the lights had gone up and they still were not stopping, so I threw a pint of water over them.

Will [Superstore Patron]: The first time I ever went, I was off my face and spent the whole night dancing with a drag queen dressed as Lady Gaga and their mate that was dressed head to toe in leather. And then I ended up having my first orgy.

Matt: My favourite memory is still from DJing the early years upstairs and playing Whitney’s "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" while the whole bar sang along and Jonny Woo crowdsurfed the length of the room and got carried out the front door. Also, A Man to Pet taking a shower inside a paddling pool on the main bar was pretty memorable. People were still trying to get served between her legs too without getting sprayed on.

Dan: The image of A Man To Pet and John Sizzle recreating the Human Centipede on the bar will never leave me.

Stav B [Performer and Promoter]: For me, my favourite memory is running my night, The T club, which was a night for trans, gender queer and all in between. It was at a time when there was nothing decent for trans people to go and hang out at. I was ecstatic when Superstore agreed to give us a roof, and they were really happy I’d chosen them – I mean, where else could we pull it off? Superstore was the only choice.

Dalston Superstore Cathal O'Brien
Photo by Cathal O'Brien

Sarah [Patron]: I have very little memory of the many lesbian nights I have been to there, which I think is the mark of a good time. Amnesia is an inevitable outcome. Some of my favourite nights there though were Twat Boutique, Clam Jam and Sister Pantichrist.

James [Patron]: I met up with my first ever boyfriend, the first man I’d ever loved and the first man that ever broke my heart after five years of not speaking, and we went to Dalston Superstore. After a day of drinking he beat me in an arm wrestle and I caught feelings again, and, after he left, I went to the bathroom and wept in the middle of the day. It was very cathartic.

Angad Singh [Patron]: When I first went to Superstore it was intimidating, and I had massive imposter syndrome. As I’ve become more confident in myself I’ve been able to express my queerness more and more, and now I feel comfortable to take up space as a brown kid in a queer space [like DSS]. I went to the last Hungama Bollywood night there and could’ve cried – I saw a whole queer Desi community I hadn’t known existed and felt like I’d come home.

Jack: Some of the most memorable things for me have been quite personal events for customers. I’ve seen people’s first time out in a queer space, I’ve seen people come and experience their first time being openly trans, I’ve seen a trans man's first time post-top surgery dancing with his top off and feeling comfortable and exhilarated in doing so, and these are the most special, memorable moments for me.

Cultural Impact

Dalston Superstore Drag Queen Custer Roxy Lee
Photo by Roxy Lee

Dan: When we first opened we were achingly fashionable. We were in Italian Vogue and there were all of these pieces about it. After that, we settled into just being the neighbourhood gay bar, which is what we set out to do, and we’ve learnt that the most important parts are the people and the music. We’ve had people come from the other side of the world to work here, which is mad. It’s very humbling, but we try not to get too concerned about the image or the cool of the venue. There is, however, a web that extends from us, and that we’re part of – things like the Glory or Chapter 10 – that include all kinds of musically open-minded queer spaces and people, which is amazing.

Angad: Superstore represents a transition to me. It was the first queer venue outside of Soho I ever went to when I arrived in London at the age of 19, and I was star struck at the uninhibited way everyone was dressed, dancing, speaking – unlike other queer spaces, it didn’t feel too #masc4masc.

Dalston Superstore Roxy Lee
Photo by Roxy Lee

Matt: I think Superstore has become so many things to so many people over the last ten years, and it’s always really humbling when people tell me about how they discovered Superstore and it represented a significant point in their lives when they discovered themselves or met their boyfriend / girlfriend / life partner. Culturally, I think we represent a much more mixed and experimental LGBTQ+ environment for people than more traditional spaces, and for many that’s really liberating. The fact that you can sit here and have brunch with a load of drag queens at 11AM and still be here dancing on a table at 4AM is pretty special, too.

Stav B: As a queer person, of all persuasions, to be able to have a safe and interesting and colourful space to go alone, for a date, a meeting, a show or a dance is so crucial. Dalston Superstore has provided and continues to provide this lifeline, especially in this present climate when other queer spaces are closing.

Sarah: When I first heard about Dalston Superstore, I was super excited because I was living in Deptford in like 2013, and there was virtually no gay scene, let alone stuff for lesbians. When I first went, I felt like I’d found my scene and my people. Years of going, making friends and meeting people has built up a wonderful community. One of my favourite things about Superstore is its commitment to giving back to the community. It’s not just a vapid club, it’s a vapid club with the most gorgeous soul. It uses music and dancing and frivolity to bring people together and raise awareness, to fundraise and to lift people up. It must be protected at all costs.

Last Five Years

Dalston Superstore Roxy Lee
Photo by Roxy Lee

Jack: Over the past five years I’ve worked my way up the team, starting as a glass collector and ending up as General Manager. It’s been an extraordinary journey and most of my memories are about the family I’ve come to form working here, both with the staff and the amazing regulars that we have. I’ve got to meet some incredible and unexpected people. Most of my time here has been spent during the day, which isn’t when most people come, so I’ve seen things as varied as someone writing a UN resolution to people organising charity work, protests, launching brands. I’ve got to meet an amazing cross section of the community.

Matt: The last five years is when it feels like we’ve actually got ourselves organised. Having DJ’s like Derrick Carter, The Black Madonna and Honey Dijon – who’s our special tenth birthday guest – playing in such a small, underground queer space is totally unique in London. There have been some really special smoke filled moments down in our laser pit.

Dan: We’ve also realised that we know much less than we thought we did when we opened, and we know much less as every year goes by. For us, if there’s anything that’s steered the ship into the right waters it’s by working with our bar team, listening to them and trying to create an environment that they can be proud of, because they are the beating heart of this place.

The Future

Dalston Superstore Roxy Lee
Photo by Roxy Lee

Rachel: One thing Superstore excels at is evolving. It's been my home from home, the mothership, forever, and will always welcome me with open arms no matter how long I've been away. It will weather all the changes Dalston and Hackney can throw at it. She's a tough old boot, without being a bitter queen. Long may she reign.

Dan: Superstore will always be these bricks and mortar and 2,000 square feet on Kingsland High Street. It’s not a brand, it’s not something that will open on every high street, and it was never meant to be that. The future of Superstore lies at 117 Kingsland High Street, and it is to refine, create, misstep, correct and just try to be what people need.

@bencsmoke

Dalston Superstore's 10th anniversary party will take place on Sunday May 5th. Find more info here.

All images courtesy of Dalston Superstore

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