The Big Smooch

Our annual Valentine’s Day feature when we show some love to people, places and things from Richmond.

A few years ago, we brought back an annual Style Weekly issue meant to coincide with Valentine’s Day called the Big Smooch.

The idea was to show some love by way of shout-outs, kudos, or best wishes to a handful of people, places or things that we appreciate about Richmond that might be flying under your radar. Another reason was simply due to the relentless onslaught of downright bleak or scary news in the media lately, especially the last few years. Sometimes we all need a palate cleanser.

Under new owners VPM, Style Weekly has been refocusing its coverage on arts, culture and food, so most of the names on this list come from those worlds, though culture is broadly defined. We came up with this year’s list by asking our freelancers to send us ideas for those they’d like to offer a figurative smooch. And here are the 14 that were chosen for Valentine’s Day, 2022.

Giles Garrison

Superintendent of James River Park System

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, there was a record number of over 2 million visitors to the James River Park System, our city’s natural crown jewel. Last year, around 1.8 million people showed out.

As of Jan. 15, Giles Garrison is in charge of this sacred space as its new superintendent, following in the footprints of past superintendents such as Ralph White, Nathan Burrell and Bryce Wilk. And we’re stoked to have a woman in the job of protecting and growing our greatest natural asset.

Garrison grew up in the shadow of Forest Hill Park, close to the James River, and she’s always considered it a magical place that has provided an escape from life’s stresses – whether running the trails, climbing the Manchester Wall, or just hanging out in nature. “Just like any place in Richmond, the more you dig, the more you learn about the James River Park System,” Garrison, 38, says. “To me, I can’t imagine a better job than this.”

The former director for Groundwork RVA and Storefront for Community Design, Garrison has a proven track record of passion for the issues of accessibility and inclusivity. “I have always dreamed of an urban conservation corps in Richmond,” she says, mentioning a current program, Teens of Richmond in Parks (or TRIP), which allows teenagers from Richmond Public Schools to be a part of outdoor summer projects. A goal of her department is to expand the diversity of visitors, she says: “We want to have physical access for neighborhoods that historically might not have had it – greenways from the East End and from Southside, pieces of connectivity infrastructure.”

The federal government will be funding some of this: The park system is getting $78 million as part of the American Rescue Plan Act and (at press time) they were hoping for another $30 million in state funds. “That funding is going to create major changes, it’s unprecedented,” Garrison says, noting that the new master plan is already underway and will require a serious community engagement lift. “It’s really a generative time in the department,” she adds.

Activities such as climbing and outdoor adventure camps have greatly increased their popularity in recent years. Garrison’s own personal favorite recent memory on the James River of late is stand-up paddle boarding with her husband and successfully making it through Choo Choo rapids (woo-hoo!)

So what can you do to help the parks? Garrison says that advocating for park funding is still necessary. “We’re still an underfunded parks department when you compare us to other localities around the state,” she points out. “Also, I’d say in the park, just be a good neighbor. Picking up trash, keeping dogs on a leash. That’s the low-hanging fruit – be good stewards.” If you’re interested in learning more or volunteering, visit the website Friends of the James River, which has a calendar of events and other things you can do to help.

Richmond Free Press

Independent, Black-owned weekly newspaper

With much of print journalism in decline due to shrinking ad revenue and vulture capitalists sucking the lifeblood from remaining outlets (including this one, until recently), it’s hard not to imagine all of journalism in a state of disarray. But we should recognize the survivors, so we’re sending a big happy birthday smooch out to the Richmond Free Press, celebrating its 30th anniversary as our only local, Black-owned newspaper.

Asked what her paper does best, president and publisher Jean Boone doesn’t hesitate: “Physically, we’re the paper closest to the state capitol, reflecting our thrust to cover government in a way that helps people understand the issues, particularly local issues,” she says. “We put out 52 editions a year both on the street and online, and each is as relevant as the first edition was in keeping the tradition of being a voice for the voiceless, by being bold in our editorials and our news coverage.”

The Free Press plans to announce a 30th birthday party and says a well-known national figure will come to Richmond to talk about equity and fairness. The big event may even include champagne and cupcakes similar to the newspaper’s grand opening celebration in 1992, which came during a heavy snowstorm. Anyone looking to further support the paper can subscribe, advertise, or post a celebration announcement.

Also this summer the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in the Fan is planning a photography exhibition featuring the memorable work of Sandra Sellars and Regina Boone (Jean’s daughter) as they covered 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests across the city. The premiere for the exhibition is tentatively scheduled for Juneteenth, but the Free Press is planning celebratory pop-up events throughout the year as well.

After recently receiving the George Mason Award from the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Boone says she feels her late husband’s vision for the paper he founded remains alive and well. “He understood the power of the press,” she says. “Back then he said, ‘If I don’t start a newspaper now, then I will never do it.’ Racism was abundant here and continues to be a major barrier, but we’ve stayed in business.”

Austin “Auz” Miles


Artist Austin “Auz” Miles wants Black women to love their bodies and stories. Her art often depicts historic Black female figures, many of them lesser known but still powerful, shapely and surrounded by bright and abstract supporting imagery that alludes to their work and legacy.

Miles focuses her work on Richmond’s North Side and South Side neighborhoods – predominantly Black areas that often are in need of beautification. “I want my murals to be in neighborhoods where the people in my murals look like the people seeing them,” Miles explains. “I want little Black girls to see the women in my paintings and to be like, ‘oh, that’s me … I can see myself in that woman.”

On Hull Street near Croaker’s Spot is Miles’ “Brown Girls Narratives,” which shows five Black women of various shades, unified by uplifting phrases and a blue hand across their shoulders. Over at the Sankofa Community Orchard, a communal gardening space off Midlothian Turnpike from local food justice advocate Duron Chavis, you can find Miles’ mural of Claudia Jones, a feminist, journalist and Black nationalist who immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago and was a Communist political activist until being deported in 1955 and living in the United Kingdom, where she founded the country’s first major Black newspaper.

Miles’ portrait of beloved local gospel singer Cora Armstrong was displayed in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This work is so animated, you might feel like you could join Armstrong in a hymn; the singer’s torso is done in Miles’ signature style – curved, textured and imaginative lines that ground a realistic face. The aim of her technique is to celebrate the shapeliness of Black female bodies, Miles says. Many of her works were done in partnership with the Richmond-based All City Art Club, and you can find more of her murals outside of Richmond, on the streets of Magnolia, Mississippi, Cleveland, Ohio and in Norfolk.

Chicki Parm

Drag queen

One of the hardest working women in Richmond may not be a woman at all.

With regular bookings for Quenched Wednesdays at Thirsty’s, Chicks of Babes every Thursday, bi-weekly brunches at the Camel and Capital Ale House, not to mention regular Hard Candy shows at Fallout — it’s hard to find a busier drag queen than Chicki Parm.

Amidst Richmond’s burgeoning drag scene an increasing number of queens are making hair, make-up, and heels their full-time jobs. Sweet Pickles, Jasmine Clitopatra, and Michelle Livigne are just a few of the other full-time girls that come to Chicki’s mind –“but I think I make more money than all of them,” she says cheekily.

Arguably Richmond’s number one comedy queen thanks to her long-running Extra Cheese stand-up show that ended last summer, Chicki just hit three years of doing drag full-time. She first started performing in drag seven years ago, “which makes [her] feel like an ancient drag dinosaur,” she jokes.

Chicki is enough of a local celebrity that everyone from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee to Descovy [an HIV-prevention medication] have begun to sponsor her posts to thousands of followers. “I don’t feel a deep spiritual connection to many causes, but PreP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] is definitely one I find myself advocating for outside of drag in my daily life anyway,” she says. “So that made partnering with them really special for me.”

A couple times she applied to join the cast of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but she didn’t bother for upcoming season 15. You can already find her performing any given weekend in another city or state around the mid-Atlantic, so for now she would rather focus on helping grow Virginia’s drag scene for up-and-coming girls who want to make the art form their full-time gigs.

“I feel so secure in my career as a local diva that my goals have shifted from glaringly big stuff to just killing it as much as I can as a non-Drag Race girl,” explains Chicki. “The Richmond drag scene is growing and growing and we keep making more money, so I just want to invest in my community here.” You go, girl – here’s a big red lipstick smooch for keeping it real.


The Intersection of E. Marshall and N. 27th Streets

Where great sounds and great tastes meet

Getting there is easy: Climb Church Hill on Broad Street, hang a left just before Proper Pie Co., take a quick right, and proceed two blocks. Leaving this area, on the other hand — that’s the hard part.

The intersection of East Marshall and North 27th streets is an invitation to indulge like few others in town – a wonderland for ear drums and taste buds especially. Just east of the intersection you’ll find the Records & Relics vinyl shop, a cozy, carefully curated cache through which high-end jazz, soul and classic rock gems cycle regularly. Facing it is the eastern outpost of the standard-bearing Italian takeout operation 8 ½, offering the ideal carbohydrate complement to the new (old) tunes you picked up across Marshall. Grab a delicious homemade dessert at JJ’s Makery, which celebrated a year in business last October, and maybe a bottle of wine at Second Bottle, just over a year old as of January, and you’re outfitted for an exceptional night indoors.

If any of that sounds too sedate, though, Cobra Burger is just footsteps away, ready to melt your face via their Big Baby Butter Burger, Burger Venom house hot sauce and heavy-metal-inspired merch. Did we mention Records & Relics sells classic metal albums as well? It’s all smooch-worthy.


Ashley Dobbin-Calkins

President of Richmond Animal Care and Control board

Ashley Dobbin-Calkins can’t stand to see a loving pet without a home. Not only is she the president of the Richmond Animal Care and Control Foundation board, she also uses her skills as a photographer to help local animals find their forever humans.

More specifically, we want to give Dobbin-Calkins a big smooch for her recent book “Rescues in Richmond,” featuring the stories and photos of nearly 170 rescue animals, most of them having received assistance from RACC. To date, book sales have raised more than $6,400 toward the RACC Foundation’s emergency veterinary care fund. The non-profit raises about $200,000 annually to cover emergency care, while city funding for RACC is limited to non-emergency care and other operating expenses.

The tales in Dobbin-Calkin’s book are odd, often miraculous and exemplify the difference kindness makes. One such story is that of Penny, a black-and-white pit bull mix that was found injured on train tracks by a railroad worker in 2015. She had been hit by a train, but surprisingly, had no internal injuries. Today Penny is short a tail and a leg after emergency surgery funded by RACC, but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying her favorite pursuits: afternoon naps, beach trips and walks in her Goochland neighborhood with her humans.

“I created the book I wanted to read – one focused on uplifting and quirky stories and filled with images of animals and spots around the city,” Dobbin-Calkins says. “I love promoting rescue, but have a hard time with stories that have a preachy feel. I wanted to create a fun, visually interesting book to highlight and preserve the stories of each rescue pet while showing off the city.”

Just a few copies of “Rescues in Richmond” are still for sale online and at Chop Suey and Nicola Flora. (Both stores also have shop cats featured in the book.) “I am strongly considering volume two,” Dobbin-Calkins says. “Details to come.”


Pop artist

The image of a Black man performing at the base of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue proved so iconic that it catapulted local pop artist Trapcry onto the German nightly news. His impromptu concert during the height of 2020’s racial justice protests also put him on the map this side of the Atlantic. For Trapcry, the point went beyond putting on a good show; as with his music, it was about ensuring that people like himself are seen and valued by society at large.

He says the whole George Floyd movement made him feel the need to contribute in his own way. “I wasn’t out marching every night, but I wanted to let people know there are Black and queer people who live in Richmond,” he explains. “When we talk about Black Lives Matter, a lot of times Black LGBTQ people are excluded from that by our own community and by everyone else. Performing at the Lee Monument was a way to show that we’re part of this too. We often lead these movements and don’t get the recognition.”

Trapcry’s genre-blending music and salacious shows also deserve a smooch for their demand to be heard, seen and accepted. Currently, he has two concerts lined up at Richmond Music Hall over the next couple of months. Later in February he plans to release his latest album “Dangerous” [Quiet Year] on double black-and-white swirl vinyl; his first tangible musical release should be in local record shops soon.

Beyond being able to sell the vinyl (with a poster inside), for Trapcry his new work symbolizes permanence and a physical legacy: “Until recently, if somebody turned off the internet, I could’ve disappeared. But now I’m immortalized,” he says. “With this vinyl, I’ll always exist in the world now.”

Trapcry still releases singles and remixes nearly monthly and his next big project is a second EP from Terracotta Mafia, his alternative R&B duo with co-artist siiren. With a bunch of new songs written and recorded, Trapcry is poised for big things in 2022 – maybe even the song of the summer.


Recluse Coffee Bar and Roastery

In the alley beside 1310 Altamont Ave, suite B.

In Richmond, a long line snaking down a back alley typically indicates the entrance to a basement house party or city dance club. However, if that alley is in Scott’s Addition on a weekend, the most likely cause is Recluse Coffee Bar and Roastery.

If you’re facing Wax Moon record store, walk down the gravel-strewn alley to the right and you’ll quickly come across two wooden double doors covered by a tin roof awning. A small hanging sign, a sandwich board, and the edge of a table protruding from the doorway are the only indicators this alley has more to offer. And no, the name Recluse isn’t a nod towards this somewhat concealed coffee shop.

Owners Aimee Biggerstaff and Jack Fleming originally intended to operate their business purely as a roastery. When the pandemic hit, however, the bottom fell out of their wholesale bean business, forcing them to add a café component to their plans.

“In 2020, we lost a lot of our wholesale accounts and had to rebuild our client base,” explains Fleming. “I was continually blown away every weekend that we had a line out the alleyway. That level of love was a show of support that meant so much to us and helped us get through some of the hardest times.”

This winter, the couple celebrated a year-and-a-half of selling their coffee directly to customers before shuttering the shop for the season to rethink their expansion. Until they announce the next chapter of the coffee bar, their renowned roasts are still available for purchase via their website. Those looking for their brewed beverage can find Recluse coffee at Sub Rosa Bakery, Perk Café, and the Lab at Alchemy —Richmond’s most discerning coffee shop which recently dropped Blanchard’s beans as their house roast.

For the duo behind Recluse, people’s passion for their coffee is all the motivation they need to chart the future of their business. “The response to us from Richmond, from our customers, and from the service industry and restaurants sometimes makes me want to run away I get so emotional,” Biggerstaff adds. “But the support and validation makes us want to go further to develop these partnerships with farmers and bring even more coffee to the city.”


The Sisters McMullen

Creative collaborators

Ayanna and Nickey McMullen are often together while active in their separate spheres of commerce and art. The ever-evolving Ayanna had several overlapping careers as a teacher, ministry administrator, and non-profit program director before striking out on her own with Harmony Organizing. The business focuses on the core challenges of entrepreneurship: building a team, growing delivery capacity, and avoiding burnout. In 2019 she launched The Network Incubator, a hybrid real world/virtual collaboration group that offers a “creative think tank for business ideas” and has drawn participants from 17 states and 15 countries. It meets every first Thursday of the month via Zoom, which is free and open to the public, from 9 to 10:30 a.m.

Her sister Nickey McMullen is equally passionate about community engagement – though in a different way. A powerhouse singer, she performs solo as well as with Ban Caribe (a blend of Afro-Cuban, Latin, Caribbean and R&B) and beloved local reggae artist Mighty Joshua. She’s also hosted the Writer’s Den Poetry Slam and curated the Valentine Museum’s The Oasis: A High Noon Summer Concert Series.

The sisters are frequent collaborators, both in networking events and charitable fundraising; not so much in performance, but that possibility isn’t entirely foreclosed. Ayanna also sings and, inspired by her sister’s use of music as another form of social activism, has dusted off her violin. We appreciate them and all they do for the culture, coming at it creatively from many different areas, but always with a focus on collaboration and growth.


Morgan Burrs

Guitarist for Butcher Brown

Even practicing, guitarist Morgan Burrs’ sound has always been instantly recognizable.

There was a time when he would show up on Sunday mornings practicing for a church service, his hand still marked with a bold black Magic Marker X as underage from a previous Saturday night gig. His band back then was the presciently named Future Prospect. Today, as the youngest member of eclectic, jazz-funk breakout band Butcher Brown, Burrs is taking his unmistakable sound from Richmond and touring around the world. He’s also started producing other artists and just spent a month laying down tracks in Los Angeles. Check out his slinky, rhythmic playing on Butcher Brown’s cover of the Patrice Rushen fan-favorite “Remind Me,” which features Alex Isley, daughter of Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers.

Notably, Burrs’ guitar practice streams still show up regularly and randomly on Instagram. It’s just him and his guitar in a darkened room, playing glistening arpeggios and soulful lines over a mesmerizing beat. In a time period defined by loneliness and social distancing, there is consolation in sharing time with effortless creativity hard at work.

Butcher Brown has gotten a lot of press as one of Richmond’s most popular musical exports, but we wanted to give props to Burrs this year thanks in part to his constant engagement of his RVA fans – more important than ever these days. But also for his continuing reinvigoration of the Butcher Brown sound. So far, he may have gotten a bit less attention than the older members of the group. But in the past month he’s been working on still-confidential sessions in LA, and flying to the UK for a mini-tour with singer/songwriter Snoh Aalegra, that low profile may be about to blow up.


Jacob Gilyard

University of Richmond graduate student and starting point guard for the men’s basketball team

When it comes to impressive sports feats in Virginia lately, there is one that stands out to us above all others. On Dec. 5, when the Richmond Spiders basketball team was playing at Northern Iowa, their star point guard, Jacob Gilyard, set the NCAA Division I career steals record with 386 steals on the way to another victory. Gilyard, who is 5’9 and lightning quick, is truly masterful in his vision and knowledge of the game. The Spiders have a reputation for undersized guards with oversized hearts and Gilyard fits that mold perfectly. Watching him play, one almost gets the sense that anytime he wants, he can take the ball from an opposing player, often by either jumping a passing lane or sneaking up behind the dribbler like a stealthy ninja. Many of his steals come at crucial times of the game, turning the momentum or securing a victory for the Spiders, who are closing in on 20 wins this season.

Gilyard is playing his fifth year for the team as a graduate student thanks to a new rule for college players due to the pandemic cancelling many games last season (the Spiders lost a bunch of games not to mention a big chance at the NCAA tournament). You have to feel bad for the team since they missed a prime opportunity to go deep in the tourney last year – but they still have a good chance to win this season’s Atlantic 10 tournament and try again. Whatever happens, there’s no denying Gilyard’s impressive achievement. So we had to throw a smooch to this special point guard for his amazing feat. He currently leads all of Division I college basketball by averaging 3.1 steals a game and he keeps adding to the all-time record. At press time he was at 437 steals for his career.


The Greater Richmond Transit Company

Central Virginia’s public transit provider

Few public transportation providers have bounced back from the pandemic panic that emptied trains and buses across the nation like the Greater Richmond Transit Company has. While other regions of the country are struggling to restore their ridership to pre-pandemic levels, GRTC’s local routes are serving more Central Virginians than ever. A major part of the transit company’s recipe for success was the bus system’s move to zero fare operations.

It means that whether you’re a long-term, regular rider or someone who has never set foot on the bus, the price has never been better to ride. GRTC’s fare free service began as a COVID-19 precaution to protect the health of both riders and operators, but thanks to a grant from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the support of the city of Richmond and VCU, the zero fare pilot program will last through June 2025 — and with continued support could one day become permanent. That alone is worth a smooch.

Chief Executive Officer Julie Timm has heralded the region’s backing as a big win for equity and economic development: “Under Zero Fares, our most vulnerable neighbors have no longer been forced to choose between the cost of transportation and the cost of food or medicine. They now have ready access to these essential resources through transit service, and they have the opportunity to spend their hard-earned dollars directly at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, or the pharmacy instead of the GRTC farebox — putting those dollars directly back into the local economy.”

And now, as the fast-spreading omicron wave subsides, Timm and her team are working to hire as many new bus operators and mechanics as they can to restore service and set the system back on track for further regional expansion. Talks are already underway to add representatives from Henrico County to GRTC’s board of directors.

With plans for a new downtown transfer plaza in the works and a recently completed study on a new North-South Pulse bus rapid transit corridor waiting in the wings, all the talk of exciting new infrastructure is far from over in the Richmond region.


Prabir Mehta

Musician and chair of Gallery5’s board of directors

“Haanji,” the electric retelling of Prabir Trio frontman Prabir Mehta’s immigration from India to Virginia, was included on the inaugural shortlist of the Newlin Music Prize, which plans to bestow an annual honor on the best full-length album from the Richmond-Petersburg area. But the honor is ours for Mehta being part of this community.

It’s not just that “Haanji” rocks (it does), or that Mehta keeps Tom Petty’s remembrance alive and well fronting tribute band Full Moon Fever. He makes just as much noise outside the spotlight. Chairing the board of vital music venue and art space Gallery5, creating educational content for the Science Museum of Virginia, fostering connectedness throughout the Gather co-working community, helping to plan the annual Classical Revolution RVA Mozart festival, serenading a senior living facility with Beatles covers on Christmas Day… even a partial listing reads like a CVS receipt.

“I love a lot of stuff,” he says, “and I don’t want to let anything I love — I don’t want to let them down. It’s work that has to be done, and I’m in a position to do it.”

His to-do lists are the stuff of legend, reflecting countless acts of creative consultancy and advocacy benefitting local community-minded organizations. “There’s no such thing as a full plate, in my mind,” he says. “There’s just a larger meal.”

His is a rare generosity of spirit, and regardless of what happens with the 2022 Newlin prize, we all win year after year as a result of Mehta’s dedication to running down the dream of a vibrant and healthy Richmond arts scene.


Tablespoons Bakery

1707 Westover Hills Blvd.

Did you know that in Virginia, the unemployment rate for young adults with developmental disabilities is 70%? The national average is even 10% higher. The team of special educators and bakers behind Tablespoons Bakery, which more specifically serves those with Down syndrome and autism, knows those numbers well and they’re doing something to help.

“Often times people don’t think about what happens to this population after they graduate from high school,” says Elizabeth Redford, executive director and co-founder of Next Move Program, the umbrella nonprofit behind Tablespoons that focuses on job training and employment services. “Families call it ‘the great cliff,’ because they go from having a really robust set of services and all sorts of activities and sports — to just sitting at home.”

In November 2020, Next Move began leasing a home in the Westover Hills neighborhood for Tablespoons Bakery to operate a brick-and-mortar retail business. After plenty of renovation and construction during the pandemic (“not for the faint of heart,” Redford notes) the home now includes a restaurant downstairs and vocational training classrooms upstairs, as well as office space. Tablespoons Bakery has five young adults on its current team and in the spring, it will offer internships to all area public schools; they plan to serve roughly fifty young adults a year, she adds.

“A lot of the work we do is about not only tapping into their potential and preparing them for the workplace, but connecting the larger community to our young adults,” Redford explains. “Training businesses so they know how to best place and work with them, and so they can see the benefits of hiring from this population.”

The bakery concept first began rising in 2017 with the support of the Virginia Department of Education and professional baker Britt Falabella. Tablespoons opened a food stand at South of the James farmer’s market, where its Oatmeal cream pies sold out nearly every weekend. It took a few years to raise the money from local corporate groups, but in November 2020 they moved into the home in Westover Hills.

The new Tablespoons location opened its doors in November 2021 and now offers outdoor seating. “It’s a 1930s home, the space had to go through construction to add a ramp and reconfigure the downstairs bathroom to make it more accessible,” Redford says, adding they had to fully renovate the commercial kitchen in the church next door; which meant going through licensing and permitting on both spaces, as well as rezoning the family home.

Next Move’s externship model was put on pause, Redford says, due to the pandemic. But now they are doing a lot of e-commerce, including a popular cookie club program (96 members), as well as corporate orders, while offering wholesale and shipping. “We’ve really done well through our website,” Redford adds. “But we’re still trying to get that foot traffic up being a newer physical restaurant.”

They also bought a vintage, 1974 Kontiki camper, which has a Matt Lively mural on the side, and now they can take it out for events, Redford says. To learn more, visit their website, which Capital One helped to design, or you can follow them through their regular updates on Instagram.


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