Coffee, art and activism
Miles Montalbano and his partner, Christy Carter, first started thinking about opening a business about a year ago while taking a walk through the Barber area where they live in south Chico, wondering what they’d love to see that didn’t currently exist.
“The idea for an infoshop kept coming up,” said Montalbano, who also runs The Pageant Theatre and has a longtime love for underground and anarchist bookstores. “A space that focuses on radical literature and offers people a place to meet in a physical space rather than online to hang out, scheme and get things going.”
As it turned out, Molly Roberts, another Barber resident, was looking to start a coffee cart business in the neighborhood around the same time, so it didn’t take long for the two to begin figuring out how to merge their ideas. Roberts works as a manager at Chico Chai and at Women’s Health Specialists, but it’s her love of the neighborhood and volunteer work with the Safe Space Winter Shelter and local DIY music organization Chico Area Punks that are most in line with this new project.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood off and on for the majority of my life,” she said. “So the location and deciding to do it here was one of the most important parts for me.”
The charming location they found for Blackbird: Books, Gallery & Cafe, which opened last month at 1431 Park Ave., is a perfect fit for the inviting community meeting place that the business partners and a small cooperative of curators and employees aim to create. Built as a residence in 1900, the building was zoned commercial in the 1970s and has been host to a barbershop, thrift store and other businesses since then. Roberts and Montalbano said they didn’t feel the need to renovate much, opting to keep the location’s soulful feel and history intact. The vintage furniture and fixtures they’ve filled the rooms with are comfortable and welcoming.
“It’s funky for sure, but that’s what we wanted,” Roberts said. “It looks pretty much just like our houses inside.”
The three main facets of Blackbird—cafe, bookstore and gallery—aim to work hand-in-hand while keeping things as local as possible. The cafe serves up vegan pastries made by the GRUB Cooperative, Pacific Culture kombucha, coffee from Fable Coffee (a Grass Valley roaster run by former Chico resident Amanda Daley) and will soon offer beers from Sierra Nevada. Much of Blackbird’s book inventory—a well-curated mix of politics, environmental issues, self-published zines, vegan cookbooks, graphic novels and more—is selected by hand from the local AK Press warehouse. And the third component, monthly rotating art exhibits, will showcase local artists. Currently showing is a series by Amanda Riner and Mallory Russell called Lady Broad, Chick Baby, with a reception Nov. 18, featuring live music by Cat Depot and Bran Crown.
It’s activities such as these that have Roberts and Montalbano most excited. There are already others planned, such as an ongoing political prisoner letter-writing series and a fundraiser for the 6th Street Center for Youth featuring a performance by Jonathan Richman, and the space is already being used by several community organizations as a meeting place. Blackbird is open to proposals for additional classes, workshops, film screenings and more.
“When I was growing up, finding spaces like this was super important for me, so that’s always been a huge thing for me,” Montalbano said. “We’re not in this to make money. The main goal is to be sustainable and to have this place that we all want to see in Chico. And hopefully there will be enough of the community that feels the same way.”