How The Camel Became A Cultural Oasis For Independent Artists


This article originally appeared in RVA #40 back in March 2023.

The Camel, just after their three o’clock opening time on an unreasonably beautiful weekday in February, is a far cry from 10 o’clock on a Saturday night. Inside, it is quiet and simple, the veritable calm before the storm. A few workaholics nurse light beers, typing away on their laptops, while Katy Perry pumps through the lightly used sound system near the bar, and I sit silently to observe the employees I have often seen puttering around for years. In the interest of an all-inclusive understanding, I sit back and allow myself an honest view into how this staple of Richmond culture operates in its downtime.

Tyler, the bartender, serves me a drink and chats with the other customers about the big game happening that weekend. Matt Hanson, one of the employees/owners of The Camel, comes out to hand out the WiFi password to a curious customer. The band for that night, Sutso from Charleston, South Carolina, begins loading in through the side door, and I have a moment to speak amiably with a few members. This is The Camel in its purest form: a down-to-earth venue for local and growing bands that gets them on a stage and close to the people; no barriers between owners, employees, artists, and the public. The Camel, in its current form, seems an immovable object, a stationary institution that is and always was – but of course, that isn’t true. What is now The Camel has gone through many changes over the course of its run as Richmond’s premier independent music venue, and the story, I would soon come to find out, starts with an incredible man I’d never heard of in the year 1995.

Alan Schintzius 2019

The organization that eventually became The Camel originally emerged with the name Fusion Cafe and Gathering Place (FCGP) under the watchful eye of local activist Alan Schintzius. Schintzius had been in Richmond for decades and carved out a niche for himself as a towering countercultural figure. To name just a few of his accomplishments: when Virginia Commonwealth University wanted to expand their Engineering school in 1995, they threatened to tear down the historic Jacob House, a 19th-century Richmond structure built by early abolitionist George Winston and his emancipated apprentices. Schintzius stood in front of a bulldozer in protest. Schintzius was also an organizer in Occupy Richmond, a branch of the global Occupy Wall Street protests, and in 2016, he even ran for mayor, going up against prominent Richmond politicians like Jack Berry, Jon Baliles, and Levary Stonery. Pointed in his direction, I got some time to sit down to chat with Schintzius about his intriguing history and how he poured his heart and soul into one of the most important music venues in the city of Richmond.

Schintzius entered into a long-term lease at 1621 W Broad St in 1995. The building was a former plumbing shop and offices filled with office cubbies and needed serious renovations that would take Schintzius the better part of a decade to finish. The upstairs was being used as a residential space that would, for the early days, be occupied by Schintzius and those transitioning in life who often would barter service to the building in lieu of rent.

Schintzius referred to the original coalescence as, “not so much something that was founded, as much as an organizing concept that began in 1995 with the onsite residents working on the eclectic vision.” Dreamed up as a community space for gathering to discuss art, politics, and philosophy, live music was not the main focus of the FCGP in the early years. With the gathering room being quite small, there wasn’t much room for performance. That, however, didn’t stop the FCGP from being a hotbed of local artists of all kinds, featuring events like the Floating Folk Festival. Later, the space would play host to fire performers, circus arts, and myriad other cultural oddities that offered an escape from what Schintzius described as the “dungeon-like” environment of the late 90s’ Richmond that continued into the early 2000s. As the millennium approached, Schintzius offered up the building to have an all-day celebration in the gutted space going through renovations. Numerous bands came in and did video shoots, and the FCGP celebrated the millennium by providing a space for young artists to showcase themselves in an environment indicative of Richmond’s grunginess – a shockingly poignant representation of what was to come.

At a certain point, it becomes impossible to discuss the history of The Camel without also mentioning the development of WRIR, Richmond’s independent, all-volunteer, nonprofit community public radio station. Radio Free Richmond: Back in 2000, the FCC recognized Low Power FM (LPFM) as a new classification of radio stations operating under 100 watts of power, which is the threshold required for commercial stations. Seen as an answer to corporate consolidation in the radio industry, LPFM was championed by activists and progressives who wanted independent broadcasting stations that did not have to answer to large companies. To a countercultural figure like Schintzius, this was all too much to resist.

Throughout the early 2000s, Schintzius gave use of the basement of The Camel to DJs who would broadcast over the internet to advocate for an LPFM in Richmond. In 2004, as the legislation was developing, Schintzius vacated the upper floors of the FCGP to make room for the station’s offices as construction permits had cleared, and recruited Jim Bland of Plan 9 Records as a donor and community organizer and Fulbright Scholar Linda Voreland as co-chairs to organize. The three of them put together a committee of 90 local community members to perform various tasks in order to get WRIR developed, and later that year, the station was officially established, and 97.3 WRIR began broadcasting on January 1st, 2005. Schintzius, originally President of the board of WRIR, stepped back after six months to pursue what he called his, “real passion,” the gathering place of arts and culture downstairs. Schintzius’ blind devotion to a project that, it appears, he never intended to be a major part of, speaks to the kind of person that he is: someone who will support whoever in whatever as long as they have passion.

Schintzius had a grander vision but was unsure entirely of what that was, and to complicate things, personal distractions had begun to envelop his life. In the last few years, Schintzius had married a woman named Juliana Szijarto, who then partnered with him on the venture and became the organization’s business manager. It was during their honeymoon to Turkey where Schintzius was inspired by old-world culture, particularly the lore surrounding the Silk Road and the sharing of arts and culture that happened across multiple continents and civilizations. At the center of the Silk Road mythos was the most prominent use of transportation along the route: camels. Coincidentally enough, Schintzius had cardboard cutouts of a camel sitting in the FGCP before he went on honeymoon, gifted from the Firehouse Theatre. Bringing this inspiration back with him, he decided to rename the business The Camel, and in March of 2007, the venue held its first official show with a young No BS! Brass and Rattlemouth filling the bill. The concerts were a much different sight back then, as No BS! Brass had been booked for a regular monthly engagement, a rare occurrence nowadays, and during those early performances, the local All Saints Theatre Company would put on puppet shows to go along with the band in a bout of mixed-media splendor.

The Camel Then and Now 2023
The Camel 1621 W Broad St, Richmond, VA

Cut to today, and The Camel has changed from its foundations as the FCGP. That 3 o’clock happy hour is sleepy and far from discussion-orientated. By 5 o’clock, half the building closes off so that whatever band is playing that night, or often also that afternoon, can load in, soundcheck, and get ready to entertain a room that holds up to 160 people according to the fire marshal. A geometrically perfect venue, The Camel is split into two distinct sections: the showroom with a stage right hugging the front door, and a bar with the interconnection between the two rooms lying at the foot of the stage.

The Camel’s basement, which used to play host to those DJs advocating for an LPFM in Richmond, now operates as a keg storage and green room for the artists as they wait to go on stage; a place to store the major products. While the upstairs has turned into a finely polished space, the downstairs has retained the grunginess of the original FCGP. The walls are scuffed with the inerasable bumps of thousands of bands piling their equipment through the cramped space, while every other surface from the staircase to the piping hanging from the ceiling is plastered with stickers advertising everything from long-forgotten bands to local craft brewery companies. With no stage door or backstage whatsoever, The Camel forces bands to walk from the basement and straight down the standing room in order to mount the stage, lending to an atmosphere lacking in pretension and breaking down musician mysticism.

At night, patrons pile through the door in fashionably late style as the opener starts the night off. Peter, the regular doorman, is right inside at the host stand, taking tickets and stamping hands. Bump over to the bar, and you’ll likely find Taylor or another longtime bartender, Kirty, struggling to hear over the noise but never missing the mark on orders. Turn around, and there’s the band, barely 15 feet from the bar. It’s easy enough to stay and watch from the side, but the room is easy enough to slip in and out of for a better view, and there isn’t a bad one in the place. Patrons finding their ears in need of a break can step outside, as, unlike larger venues, The Camel allows reentry from their patio space open to the air in case you need to breathe in the beautiful Virginia air on a clear night. The front door, plastered with stickers, draws the eye upward to The Camel’s recognizable sign, sticking out into Broad Street, letting the public know where they are, and making them hear what’s going on inside.

The execution may have changed; the vision may have drifted, but Schintzius’ baby continues to be a hotbed of independent artists and cultural development that just so happens to focus more on music these days. While other venues can be prohibitively expensive, or put up a wall between artist and public, The Camel does none of those things. Rarely costing more than $15 for a night often packed with up to four bands, and showcasing artists of every kind, it is the place to go for music junkies who can’t get enough, or those new on the scene who want to get an introduction to what music in Richmond is all about.

Give The Camel a follow HERE

Main photo by Jody Adams

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

But you may call me Bones. I'm the Associate Editor of RVA Mag, and a writer and musician living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing I have gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, an album of original music, and perform lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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