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Eighth Street Coffee House

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History and Mission

It is a community meeting place, a piece of local history, a venue that performers ask to return to again and again. It is an eclectic convolution of the old and the new. It is more than a business; it is a family. Oh, yeah, and they sell coffee, too.

The 8th Street Coffee House, located in the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has the menu of a commercial coffee house, the local patronage of a backwoods tavern at some times and Woodstock at others, the decor of an art gallery, and the main stage entertainment of a performing arts center. The regular customers, or "8th Street Irregulars," are as much of a draw as the entertainment line up. They include everyone from the high school crowd identified by their piercing and multi-colored hair, to eccentric artists, to local politicians and businesspeople. Around every corner lurks an impromptu jam session, an intellectual discussion on the virtues of transcendentalism, or a cozy family of sun-burned children and their tired parents, eating ice cream and playing Candyland. All who enter as strangers, leave as friends.

Menu and décor alike reflect the diverse patronage of the coffee house. The building’s main entrance holds a map of Michigan, a gift shop display reminiscent of an old-timey storefront windows, a pinball machine, and usually an assortment of coffee cup-wielding customers who are engrossed in playing backgammon, reading newspapers, playing guitars, or just about any other activity imaginable. This meeting-and-greeting place is flanked on one side by stairs leading to the apartments above and on the other by a door that opens into the magic of 8th Street.

Inside, visitors are greeted by the smell of freshly-brewed coffee and the sound of friendly laughter. Just as surely as the photography and paintings displayed on the walls tell the story of the regulars, so does the menu. Drinks such as the Lori’s Night Out, the H&G Banana Nut Latte, the Froggman, and the Frozen Ryan pay homage to coffee house frequenters past and present. Staples like espresso, cappuccino, flavored coffees, lattes, and Italian sodas lend stability to the menu.

As one stands at the counter perusing the menu, the coffee house appears similar to a thousand other businesses of its kind. As one moves beyond the counter, however, the unmistakable 8th Street atmosphere infiltrates his very soul. A small alcove contains a fish tank, a couch, and numerous locally historic wall decorations, including an aerial photograph of Escanaba taken in the 1950s. Around the corner is a living room area, accented by a photo gallery displaying the work of local photographer Steve Seppanen and a painted glass wall featuring the artistic talent of owner Kay Forgette. These are only a few examples of the creative and diverse decorative themes that lurk in every corner of the coffee house.

Dave Van De Wyngearde and Kay Forgette opened the coffee house in the winter of 1998, introducing a completely new type of business to the Escanaba area. The history of the building, however, began long before 1998. Once a department store, the rambling building in historic downtown Escanaba later housed everything from a Vietnam Veterans Of America chapter to political headquarters to a cabinetry shop. Each stage in the building’s history has led to the atmosphere that can now be found. The building is much larger than those of most coffee houses, lending the possibility of a wonderful performance venue in the back room. The renovations that came when the Vietnam Veterans used the building created office and meeting room space in the rear of the building, and the cabinet shop built many nooks and crannies that are now decorated in varying themes, making the 8th Street truly a place for everyone.

Most interesting, possibly, is the fact that the building actually hosted a coffee house once before, during the era of war protest in the ‘70s. By some accounts, the original coffee house was a "real hippie hangout" and even an underground operation. When Van De Wyneagarde and Forgette were making plans for the building as they prepared to open the 8th Street Coffee House, they discovered some interesting artifacts in the basement. Under layers of decades-old dust they found paintings on the floor with popular hippie sentiments such as "Make Love, Not War" and other slogans of the times. Some current 8th Street regulars even remember the original coffee house; they are always willing to share stories with the younger generation that want to know what the times were like "way back when."

The backroom and stage area of the coffee house keep with the tradition of patron-generated décor. The walls are covered with murals and paintings created by Forgette and local artist Jim Finlan, along with displays of such items as old clothing and children‘s artwork. More eye-catching than the walls, though, are the floor and ceiling.

After seeing the artwork on the floor in the basement, coffee house owners and employees decided to continue that tradition. They made sections of the performance room floor available for visitors to purchase and then decorate in whatever manner they wished. The money they collected was later donated to the March Of Dimes. The project has resulted in a wildly varying floor design. Some squares are now memorials to those who have passed on, some showcase coffee house-related poetry, and others present everything from cartoon characters to Gothic imagery.

The ceiling has been decorated not by patrons, but by performers. Each performer who graces the 8th Street stage is given a tile from the ceiling to sign. Performers generally post a copy of their advertising flyer on the tile and then draw, paint, or otherwise decorate it, usually leaving some sort of a note to the coffee house patrons and, of course, their signature. It is a busy room that easily attracts attention during the day when the lights are on. At night, however, when the house lights go down and the stage lights take over, the room has a magical aura.

The 8th Street stage plays host to musicians from all levels of stardom. Locals routinely take the stage to perform impromptu concerts any night of the week. Fridays are typically host to folk music. During the spring and early summer, Delta Folks, a local group that works to promote the preservation of folk music in the area, sponsors a concert series that includes folk musicians from all over the mid-west and, occasionally, even internationally touring acts. Monday and Thursday evenings find the stage and surrounding area filled with bluegrass musicians and their fans, many of them singing and dancing along with the foot-stomping music.

Saturdays almost always showcase performances of various types. On the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, an Open Mic Nite is held, displaying local talent in music, dance, poetry, acting, comedy, and every other performance genre. The performance list routinely includes local poets, musicians, and improvisational actors. On any given night, though, the line up may also include anyone from nationally touring comedians to local musicians riding out the afterglow of success in the ‘60s to 12-year-old Elvis impersonators. One can never tell who might take the stage.

The Saturday evenings not designated Open Mic Nites are often filled with acoustic music, improvisational comedy, or other performing arts. The only common theme among all of the 8th Street performances is family-friendliness. The audience is always made up of people of all ages and backgrounds, and the 8th Street has made itself known as a family kind of place. While patrons visiting the coffee house are welcomed and encouraged to express themselves freely, while on stage, they restrict their material to subject matter and content appropriate for all viewers.

In August of 2003, coffee house employee Robin Romero bought into the business when former owner Van De Wyngearde sold his share. The change in ownership made the 8th Street Coffee House even more of a community center. The coffee house is home to many community groups and events. Local groups such as the Vietnam Veterans Of America, the Michigan Commission for the Blind Support Group, Michigan State Youth As Resources, the Delta Folks, the Rotary Club, and several church groups, along with countless groups aimed at reducing use of alcohol and illegal drugs, use the 8th Street as a meeting place. The Upper Peninsula Model Railroad Club also has a meeting room and model train display in the basement.

The 8th Street stage has been home to many community-building events as well. Each December, the coffee house serves as the home to a community sing-along that is broadcast on a local radio station. The large stage area has even been host to several summer Bible schools. A glance through the 8th Street scrapbook on display near the coffee counter shows that the coffee house has also consistently donated money and refreshments to local school and charity groups. The book is predominantly filled with thank you notes and letters.

The coffee house has even made its big screen debut. The Purple Rose Films movie "Escanaba In Da Moonlight" was filmed in Escanaba in 2000. Producers and crew visited the coffee house and enjoyed the experience so much that they chose to showcase the building and its patrons in a scene filmed in front of the building.

As if the owners, employees, and regular customers weren’t enough to make the 8th Street atmosphere unique, the 8th Street has been long-known for the ghosts that are rumored to haunt its floors. Several employees have seen coffee cups fly through the air in the dark morning and late night hours, often accompanied by a bluish light that fills the air. Often, when the Local Order Of The Oblong Table, a local writers’ group, is meeting, the lights above their table will flicker violently as they are discussing an issue that former (and now deceased) group leader Jerry McKie would have had an opinion on. And if these spooky, ghostly possibilities are not concrete enough to make one believe, there is always the cremated remains of James Reed that were once found in the building’s entryway.

The atmosphere of the 8th Street Coffee House is more than unique. From hippie to yuppie, from intellectual to silly, from family-oriented to downright spooky, 8th Street has it all. And to think... they serve coffee too.

©2003 by Emily Suzanne Smiltneck

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