We had the good fortune of connecting with Karma Smallback and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Karma, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I think I’ve been daydreaming about starting my own small business since I was a kid. The idea has morphed so much throughout the years, from coffee shop bookstore combos, to coffee shop wine bar bookstores, to simply a wine bar bookstore. The overarching theme that infused every dream scenario was the literary aspect, so I knew whatever I did had to incorporate books. The more, the merrier. I guess I have a type. But for a long time it really did feel unreachable. I was 16-plus years into a teaching career and turning my life upside down, quitting my career to open a business, felt kind of insane. Until I met and fell in love with another dreamer, who also had weirdly similar dreams of opening his own bar, and for the first time my hazy ideas of opening a wine bar that incorporated books felt realistic. We put our heads together and formulated a solid idea, a workable plan. Ultimately we melded our ideas into an absinthe bar, focusing on books and wine and absinthe. I wanted to name it after a woman writer, to honor my love of literature and my own gothic subculture, to honor women, and who better than the Godmother of Horror herself, Mary Shelley. Hence The Merry Shelley was born. We opened during the heat of the pandemic, January of 2021, but after dreaming and planning for so long, there was no way I was ever going to just throw in the towel and give up. We had come too far, literally moved across the country from Portland, OR, back to my sweet home town of Buffalo, NY, in order to lift this dream off the ground. And currently we are Buffalo’s only literary-themed Romantic Horror bar, and it all stemmed from wanting to create a space that felt like walking into a gothic living room, a welcoming space where we fully melded my love of everything literary into, well, our love of booze. To share this dream with anyone who cares to be apart of it.

Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
At its core, The Merry Shelley is a bar. On the surface it’s a themed-bar. But in its heart, it’s a meeting place for those who identify as other ~ the darklings and drears, the weird, the punks, our fellow queers, the nerds, the readers, the strange, and everything in that range. We do not have any tv’s on the walls, we’ll never play a sports game, we don’t serve domestic beer, nor are we a cocktail bar. We are weird, and we attract those who actively seek out the weird, or avoid the norm. We like being different, but the challenge of course is that we are also a business that needs to make money in order to survive, to keep going. We seek out both the people interested in our business model, and those who may not know they are. We always strive to be inclusive, to have an open door policy for anyone curious, to encourage exploration. Sometimes it’s not easy, sometimes we turn people off by how weird we are, and we understand that our brand may not be for everyone, that not everyone is going to want to sit down in a bar playing Sisters of Mercy and The Cure while sipping on absinthe. And that’s okay, but we encourage anyone intrigued to walk in, because we just may have that perfect amaro, that one beer you can’t find anywhere else, the mead you didn’t even know you liked till that first sip. We love it when patrons get excited over new things, we love sharing our love for absinthe and mead with our customers. Our walls are lined with coffin-shape bookshelves stuffed with books free for the taking. We encourage reading and operate as a Little Free Coffin Library, our own brand of a free library. We opened in January of 2021 during the shut-down period of the pandemic, and we’ve been learning on our feet as we go ever since. In the beginning all our tables were spaced out and divided by hanging refurbished vintage windows. The windows are down now, but our space is very small, so currently we check for vaccination proof at the door in order to insure the safety of our patrons and staff. We look forward to the day we no longer have to do that, but in the meantime, we are working with the times. The Merry Shelley is ultimately the meeting place we dreamed of creating, new friends are made here, new ideas are explored here.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Buffalo, NY is a beautiful city and there truly are many places to explore. I’d start with a walking tour of our cemetery, Forest Lawn, which encompasses 269 acres. Onward from there I’d want to show them the Richardson Olmsted Complex, a towering building built in the Romanesque Revival style in the late 1800s and was Buffalo’s insane asylum. The campus itself is historically significant and the building gorgeous. The Central Terminal is an art deco train station marvel. Silo City is a uniquely Buffalo experience transforming old industrial grain silos into an incubator of art and music. From there I might take them to the water front, along the Erie Canal, and depending on the season, go for a long walk, or ice skate on the skating rink during winter. Delaware park is also a wonderful place to visit and boasts 506 acres of walking trails, woods, fields, and a lake. The Albright Knox Art Museum overlooks the lake and is currently undergoing a major expansion. The Buffalo Museum of Science is a small science museum in Buffalo’s east side definitely worth a visit. And finally, I’d take them to view the artwork at Revolution Gallery, a pop surrealist art gallery with a wine bar on Hertel Ave, on the North Side, a quick 12 minute walk from The Merry Shelley!

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Cedric Justice, my life and business partner, is very much the data cruncher behind the bar. He is a data engineer for Nike by day, and comes at this with a business degree and a head for numbers. If it weren’t for him this dream may very well have stayed just a dream. I am thankful for his help, his expertise, his open-mindedness, his gregariousness, and the way he, when something is particularly funny, throws his entire body into his laugh, a laugh that can fill the entire room with joy.

Website: https://themerryshelley.com/

Instagram: @themerryshelley

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theMerryShelley/

Image Credits
The Merry Shelley Logo by Sandee Ramirez ; Lady on the Wall with Horns; our mural on the interior wall by Erin Long; with an absinthe service. Photo by Karma Smallback View of the patio with spiderwebs; photo by Karma Me in a Merry Shelley T-shirt, photo by Karma Our Coffin bookshelves, photo by Karma A skeleton statue in the bar holding our cards, photo by Karma The mural on the side of our building; ‘The Electric Lady’ by Tara Sasiadek, photo by Karma

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