No Jive: It's Java Time in Midtown Harrisburg
Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series exploring the re-emergence of Harrisburg's Midtown district. Next week, we look at the neighborhood's growing arts scene.
Through the various stages of Harrisburg's latest renaissance, in the last 10 years, most of the focus has been on the downtown section of the city, with a limelight on Second Street and the nightlife concept-- cocktails, food, cocktails. It has left Midtown, a quirky mish-mash of neighborhoods just north of the business-heavy downtown, largely residential with pockets of small businesses, some long-lasting and others who flourish then fail.
The latest pursuits have demonstrated a seemingly successful trend in coffeehouses, each with its own personality and niche.
Just near the corner of Third and Reily Streets is Breads 'n Spreads. Celebrating its one-year anniversary next month, owner Shana Woomer says she chose to open in Midtown Harrisburg because she saw the potential for business growth in the area, given the recent additions of a new Harrisburg Area Community College campus and Greenworks Development projects just outside her door.
"But on a more important personal level, I had been living in Midtown for several years and had not made the community a 'home,'" Woomer says. "I traveled a lot for work out of the area and really wanted to do something locally that would help the community and also help me become part of the community. Luckily, I feel that both goals are being achieved."
Breads 'n Spreads is the luncheonette of the group. Adorned with card tables and chairs rather than overstuffed couches and loungers, this looks more a spot to grab a bite--but has the right level for the laptop user. Woomer's food, most of which she makes herself, is delightful. Neighbors buy her chicken and ham salads by the quart. Soups of the day come in oversized individual pots with lids, so your soup never goes cold while you nom on a roast beef and cheddar.
Daily, Woomer also bakes her own breads, like banana, zucchini or pumpkin --all of which are delightfully moist. She offers coffee and tea, lattes and espresso. Her snickerdoodle coffee, which comes from local purveyor One Good Woman in Camp Hill, is an oft-requested item.
Though the decor is simple, open and the ambiance friendly, the walls--adorned with framed photos of various local buildings, some famous, some not, that Woomer herself captured--make the cafe uniquely "Midtown."
"I can't believe all of the changes this past year has brought for the Midtown neighborhood," Woomer says. "I really feel like there is an artsy, sophisticated feel developing more and more in the area. I feel very thrilled to be in the midst of all of these new exciting places, and to become part of the community and an integral place for people to stop by for a coffee or bite to eat."
When Ambreen Esmail was forced to move her coffee shop, Cafe Di Luna, from its original home on Second Street in Harrisburg, the uproar was heard through the community. Coffee fans, friends and neighbors help Esmail find a new location without having to leave the city.
Cafe Di Luna now operates just a few blocks south from the other shops. Described by fans as cozy and charming, Esmail says, as a fellow resident of Midtown, that the neighborhood is perfect for her.
"There is more walk traffic and also a growing awareness within the community for small business, art and culture, which is what my cafe brings to Midtown," Esmail says. "Everyone has been very supportive, and I hope to see Midtown grow in the right direction economically and culturally."
Esmail differentiates her shop from the others quite simply.
"I don't think of them as competition, for one. (In the other cases) coffee is accenting their main business," Esmail says. "Midtown Scholar is a bookstore while Breads 'n Spreads is delicious sandwiches. So, I love supporting them as fellow business as they do for me.
"I am all about the coffee and the 'soul of the bean," Esmail says.
And the menus give truth to her words. Ninety percent of Cafe Di Luna's menu is coffee --blended, iced, Turkish, Vietnamese, Indian and more --while 10 percent is desserts. Esmail saysthat with its focus on the bean, her shop is more like an old style cafe than the typical Starbucks or other modern coffeehouses.
"Though not a traditional coffeehouse, my cafe is filled with a unique character and every cup is roasted and brewed to perfection with passion and love --the main ingredient," Esmail says.
Esmail works personally with local roasters who boast the same passion for the coffee bean and custom roast specifically for Cafe Di Luna according to Esmail's specifications. She also is home roasting with a customer, which allows her and her regular customers to sample unique coffee variety. This enables Esmail to guarantee her coffees' flavor as she has a personal relationship with the roasters, their farms and even the dates of harvest. She deals mostly with small custom roasters, rather than commercial, who are able to roast volumes and have extensive experience in the industry.
"I am excited to see Midtown starting to take life and hope that we can sustain ourselves through economic and social challenges," Esmail says. "I hope I can continue to thrive and work with the fellow businesses towards new and innovative ideas for the progress of our community and city.
The most recent addition to the Midtown coffeehouse scene is the Famous Reading Cafe at Midtown Scholar bookstore. Midtown Scholar itself isn't new, but a renovated, upgraded and relocated version of a small used bookstore previously on Reily Street, also in Midtown. The new location is in prime real estate - right across from the historic Broad Street Market - on Third near Verbeke Street. The 10,000 square foot building houses the largest used book collection between New York City and Chicago and is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Erin Papenfuse and Catherine Lawrence, city residents since 1999.
"We are delighted to be part of 'Coffee Row' in Harrisburg," Lawrence says. "The Midtown Scholar's Famous Reading Cafe is unique in its book-lined ambiance, its terrific urban-folk coffeehouse feel, with a great acoustic stage for singer-songwriters and other musicians."
Famous Reading Cafe employs expert baristas brewing only fair-trade coffees and organic teas, plus classic Italian espressos, lattes, cappuccinos and more. Loose-leaf teas are imported by Rishi Tea, and coffee beans are imported by Counter Culture Coffee.
"We have highly trained baristas who pull the most beautiful cappuccinos and espresso macchiatos in central Pennsylvania--with milky hearts and other elaborate designs, all served in hand-crafted, Rockingham-glazed mugs," Lawrence says. "For us, coffee is not a mere add-on or accessory to the bookstore-cafe experience we want to provide. We are continually seeking out the highest quality fair-trade coffees and teas for our shop."
Lawrence says they demand excellence from their baristas and--unlike many mainstream coffeehouses who have gone to digitally-timed espressos--Famous Reading Cafe's baristas use a traditional, manual process to ensure the ideal brewing time for each drink they craft.
"We have similarly modeled our cafe areas upon the great traditional European coffeehouses-- think Paris and Vienna--of the 19th century," Lawrence says. "We want to be a place for contemplation, reflection, literary and artistic endeavors."
This venue is by far the most interactive of the group, including an art gallery and regular live entertainment on top of books and coffee. "We're committed to being a community gathering space and civic center," Lawrence says.
Recently, the bookstore-cafe hosted the only town hall-style Harrisburg mayoral debate. They boast collaborations with a variety of local nonprofit groups like Friends of Midtown, Jump Street, Susquehanna Folk Music Society, PA-ACLU, Pennsylvania Association of Librarians. They host regular children's storytimes and family-friendly musical performances, several different monthly book clubs and writers' groups, as well. The arts are an important part of the couple's mission, too, seeing a trend move along Third Street with Gallery Blu and the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center. The Midtown Scholar has The Yellow Wall Gallery, located on the second floor of the bookstore, which is currently hosting, "The Real Steel," a photography exhibit by Peter Treiber documenting Bethlehem Steel Company's last quarter-century.
"Coffeehouses were, at their outset, places of political debates, civic discussions and public discourse," Lawrence says. "We see our own bookstore-cafe as participating in this long tradition of coffeehouses as places for intellectual inquiry and community engagement where people gather and converse, with people's communal sentiments, collegiality and camaraderie all enhanced by coffee- or tea-drinking."
IF YOU GO
Breads 'n Spreads: 1419 N. Third St., Harrisburg, 717-695-7713. Open daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free wi-fi.
Cafe Di Luna: 1004 N. Third St., Harrisburg, 717-701-9868, (Cafe Di Luna's website was down as of Nov. 11, but the menu can be found here) Open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.
Famous Reading Cafe (at Midtown Scholar): 1302 N. Third St., Harrisburg, 717-236-1680, . Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Sara Bozich is your unofficial ambassador to Harrisburg. Read her nightlife column or follow her blog at SaraBozich.com. Send feedback here.
To receive Keystone Edge free every week, click here.
Shana Woomer at Breads and Spreads Cafe
Breads and Spreads Cafe
Famous Reading Cafe
Cafe Di Luna
Midtown Cinema Reel Cafe
All Photographs by Jason Minick