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Behind a Shallow Moat: All Hail the Radical King of Hampden’s Craft Castle

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BREAKING NEWS: The Craft Castle isn’t actually a castle. It is, in fact, a rowhouse, and it’s celebrating its first anniversary in October.

Some might call the Hampden arts and craft studio a diamond in the rough. Or a hidden gem, located on The Avenue, between a hair boutique and a vintage shop. To the naked eye, the Castle is a watering hole for stickers, stamps, and watercolors (for the Lumieres and Cogsworths of arts and crafts). But, beneath the surface, it’s so much more.

For starters, as founder and owner Craig Reinauer will chirp to anyone willing to listen (in a tone that, like mine, might come across as sarcastic), it’s a place to “heal your inner child.” Before our interview begins, he delivers his elevator pitch to a pair of window shoppers stopping by: “Imagine you get dropped off at art class, and the teacher’s not there.”

Except a teacher is there—well, sort of. Reinauer, 36, quit his teaching job at the end of the 2021-22 school year. He was, like many of his colleagues, burned out. Teachers’ sky-high stress levels have only worsened since COVID-19 entered the scene. Meanwhile, rates of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents have reached crisis levels, particularly among structurally disadvantaged groups.

Of course, the Castle doesn’t claim to be a cure-all for the maladies of capitalism. But it does offer a few magical doses of motivation and joy. “This is what I wanted my classroom and teaching style to be like,” Reinauer says while doodling leaves and hearts and stars, “where it’s not tied to test scores, but a place of exploration and healing.”

I’ve done a lot more healing than expected at the Castle. Making collages during the handful of times I’ve visited has helped me discover that I am nonbinary. I wrestled with, and learned to accept, my gender identity by cutting out pictures of flamingos, snakes, and unicorns; Harry Styles and Volodymyr Zelenskyy; and, naturally, rainbows.

Figuratively speaking, Reinauer is creating what Hil Malatino describes in Trans Care as a “care web”—which blends the concept of mutual aid with the ideas of disabled, feminist thinkers and activists of color—whereby folks offer each other help according to their ability and accept it according to their need. As May Chazan writes in Crip Time and Radical Care in/as Artful Politics, it is through “care-filled, artful practices” that “we slowly make our next world.”

Put simply, Reinauer says, the Castle is “more than a business.”

“It’s a lifestyle,” I interject.

Imagine you get dropped off at art class, and the teacher’s not there.
Craft Castle Owner, Craig Reinauer

Reinauer is no self-interested entrepreneur, but instead a spider spinning a care web by “asking grown-ups to work with paint and colored pencils,” he says. At the Castle, I learned to weave the fractured pieces of my identity into a mosaic I’m learning to be proud of. I was able to do this because I was independently (and therapeutically) playing alongside fellow artists; it’s what sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall termed “parallel play.”

“One of my slogans is ‘I dare your therapist to not be proud of you for signing up for a session at The Craft Castle,’” he says. “It’s parallel play. It’s about making things with your hands. It’s a wholesome experience.”

“I’m proud to offer sober fun,” adds Reinauer, who wants to teach visitors that “you can let loose without the booze” and “get tipsy on creativity.” 

“In a world that is so focused on drinking, I’m proud to say, ‘Come in and have a cold seltzer.’”

“Cheers,” we say, clinking our fruity beverages.

As a child, Reinauer loved the junk drawer in his home’s kitchen. From wire, string, and scotch tape, he would “create random oddities.”

“I get enjoyment from the potential of a blank piece of paper,” he says, “and from turning nothing into something.”

Reinauer wasn’t like other boys—that is to say, he wasn’t athletic. He didn’t get validation from winning soccer trophies, but instead from using his imagination (and hands) to make drawings and paintings, to the admiration of family, friends, and teachers.

As Reinauer grew up, crafting evolved from a source of self-esteem into a tool for stress management—especially when teaching brought him anxiety. One summer day three years ago, he stitched colorful beads and sequins onto felt patches for a denim vest while watching Forensic Files from his couch. It was the happiest he’d been in a while.

Some friends suggested he sell his stuff. “That was flattering,” he said, “but I knew I wanted something different.” He didn’t want to live on mood and ego boosts from strangers at flea markets (in the form of them saying “oh, that’s cute” about his work).

Similarly, he would get sad when he’d cross paths with fellow arts and craft supply shoppers, but not stop to talk. “You’re obviously my people—we’re like-minded individuals who want to create and do something that’s not sports,” he said. “We should be shoulder-to-shoulder creating things.”

The more stressed Reinauer was about work, the more supplies he bought. Unsurprisingly, he became especially stressed when the pandemic struck and lockdown began. “It got to a point where I had so much stuff in my house that I realized I couldn’t buy or collect any materials unless I got serious about opening a business,” he said.

 

Craig Reinauer, founder and owner of The Craft Castle

Reinauer first thought about opening an arts and crafts studio around five years ago. It was a bold idea. But “if your dreams don’t scare you,” he tells me, “then your dreams aren’t big enough.”

“Where’d you encounter this quote?” I ask.

“Probably on Instagram.”

“How do you tend to feel about swipeable content like that?”

“At this point, they’re inescapable. I’m not here to argue against infographics.”

While infographics often carry the flavorless flavor of whatever the zeitgeist deems zesty, this one curried favor with the universe (translation: it encouraged Reinauer to dream big).

Reinauer thought his dreams were coming true in fall 2021 when a space opened up on Keswick Road, in the heart of Hampden, inside a brick building complex built in 1899 that originally served as Northern District headquarters. 

Inside the parking lot, in front of a dumpster, stands a cube-shaped structure, emblazoned with golden letters spelling out “the Castle.”

“I found the element of self-deprecation really charming,” said Reinauer, who was, accordingly, devastated when he didn’t get the space. Nevertheless, he persisted. 

The king of the Castle hails from Bergen County, New Jersey of Real Housewives lore.

“I had a fantastic childhood,” he said, noting his past affinity for the staples of suburbia: the green grass and the white picket fence. (This reporter is holding space for his own disagreement.) “I didn’t realize it was a small town until I left, and now it seems smaller and smaller every time I go back.”

He finds Charm City just as—if not more—charming, and he’s proud to call it home. “It’s very normal that people are in sweatpants or whatever,” he said. “It’s not pretentious, and I seriously love that in Baltimore, you can come as you are.”

But Reinauer didn’t know he’d end up falling for Baltimore when he came here in 2006 to study education at Towson University. “I remember feeling a wave of disappointment when I got here that this was not New York,” the closest city to him growing up. But friends from the area encouraged him to look on the bright side.

“People here value a warmer greeting. There’s a bit more small talk. It took me a minute to realize that, but now I like it,” he said. “It’s more casual here than New York, so it’s easier to get to a point where you can talk about real things with people and get to know them.”

And while his tone (like mine) might be hard to read, and while “The Craft Castle may seem to be all fun and games,” he says, “building community is a big part of what happens here.”

 

“What do you call those?” I ask, pointing to the colorful ornaments dangling from the ceiling.

Reinauer explains they’re sample tassels from an interior design company. “Oh, that’s, like, queer-coded is what you’re saying?”

“Is it?” I ask. “Is that what I’m saying?”

“I think it is.”

“How so?”

“Because it looks like a rainbow.”

“There we go!”

The decor speaks to how Reinauer has designed a space around queer comfort, as well as how attuned he is to, for lack of a better word, the vibes of the Castle. He must anticipate folks’ needs; a frown can mean that someone ran out of thread. When people get bad news, he needs to keep things positive, but not toxically. “It takes a lot of effort for it to come across as effortless,” he says.

And so his five-year plan entails hiring some help. But for now, this one-man operation is focused on continuing to build “ramps into the world of arts and crafts” and stay afloat.

Fittingly, Reinauer’s latest slogan is “I’m going to make it,”—I’m going to craft, and I’m going to survive.

It’s a new mantra of mine, too. I’m taking inspiration from kintsugi, a traditional Japanese method of repairing broken pottery using lacquer mixed with precious metals. At the Castle, you can heal your wounded soul with golden magic.

Toward the end of our interview, Reinauer became upset upon observing scratches on his window. 

But as Leonard Cohen sang: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

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