Six years ago, two co-workers turned buddies learned that the property at 26 Maplewood Mall was for rent, and only one year later, Germantown Espresso Bar was born.
Germantown Espresso Bar celebrated its fifth anniversary a few weeks back on August 27th during the monthly “Mappening is Happening at Maplewood Mall” series. But only a few weeks after their celebration, they took to Instagram to announce to the public that there was “a new season” for the shop and that they would be putting all operations on pause at the end of September while they find a new home.
While speaking with co-owner Miles Butler, who grew up five minutes from Maplewood Mall, about this transitional period, he cited expenses as the primary factor for the unexpected news. Butler says, “in this celebratory moment, we also have taken this time to reflect, and there are certain fixed costs in our business model that we aren’t willing to waver on.”
“Coffee shop attendance is down 30 to 40% nationwide,” the co-owner says, adding some context and reasoning to their decision. “And the price of coffee has come down a little bit to 20% higher year over year, but at times in the past two years, it was over 200% more expensive.”
Butler says those costs add up, and with the hindered foot traffic on the mall, it’s hard to keep up with all the costs. While Maplewood Mall once was thriving and foot-heavy, many of the vicinity’s properties sit dormant. Even after a 3.3 million dollar renovation, the mall still lacks the people-power needed to keep businesses running.
Over the past five years, the Espresso Bar has integrated itself within the neighborhood, making it one of the most notable community hubs. While most spaces lend space to community groups and neighbors for a fee, the Espresso Bar does not charge. It’s one of the ways the shop strives to “live with intention,” the bright and multi-colored message plastered on the shop window. In the past five years, Butler says they have hosted over 300 events in the past five years, including the vendor’s markets, support group meet-ups, open-mic nights, and street festivals.
When asked about the Espresso Bar’s role in the community, neighborhood poet Ursula Rucker said, “That’s my homies! Miles is my BROTHER! I love ‘em ALL! I do not want US to be without GTOWN ESPRESSO… a community safe space and hub for gathering and laughing and caffeinating and planning, organizing, helping, healing, arting, and activating.”
Rucker had a mural dedicated to her on the Germantown Ave side of the mall’s entryway. She says one of the reasons she wanted the mural there was the “DIVINE INDIGENOUS COSMIC CENTREX ENERGY VORTEX” she feels in the vicinity. And she feels the Espresso Bar has been “VERY VERY MUCH a part of that GOOD TRUE COMMUNITY MAGIC [AND] ENERGY.”
Living with intention, for Butler, means the opportunity to plant seeds “because seeds ripple out.” “I think a lot of us are on autopilot, and we’re encouraged not to think critically and almost be afraid to have an alternative thought or belief system,” he says. “And so to us, that intention is one of curiosity. What we tried to instill is empathy. And not just having a lack of attention to intention, but having a deep focus and attention to intention to inspire others.”
That includes the need to pay the staff a livable wage. It consists of serving drinks in compostable cups. It contains these community-centered and powered events that give their space to neighborhood use. It includes the consistent posting on social media and in the shop of mutual aid opportunities and calls-to-action surrounding the racial injustice Philly bore witness to in 2020. It also includes maintaining a “safe space.”
A small notice on the front door tells guests that racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, sexism, and other acts of hatred are forbidden in the space. This is a reminder, the co-owner says, for folks to “check themselves.” But, this doesn’t mean that people can’t have open conversations surrounding polarizing subjects like gentrification, which Butler says they welcome, as long as it stays respectful.
“It’s sad, to me, that we can’t listen anymore,” Butler says. “But I think a coffee shop is that neutral ground. And so by having notices and stickers on the doors and espresso machine that show our belief system, we hope that it will encourage other people to share where they’re coming from. I’m not looking to change people’s minds, but if I’m able to spread just a little bit more empathy and a bit more seeds of love and hope, that’s the purpose.”
Butler says the biggest highlight of the past five years has been meeting the people and the conversations that come from it. He says watching people reach their full potential, whether staff or patrons, has been inspiring. One person he mentions is Jasmine Thompson of Philly Forests, who was one of the first baristas at the shop. Another person he recalls being a longtime supporter of the Espresso Bar is the owner of Ubuntu Fine Art, Steven CW Taylor. He says Taylor had early conversations with them about opening the gallery.
“I’m not saying [their success] is because of us,” Butler says. “But I think that’s how coffee shops can inspire that.”
Taylor agrees with the sentiment that the conversations at the shop are one of its main attractions. He says, “The community conversations that happened at ‘the bar’ each morning have made me a staple. Pre-pandemic, it was like the TV show ‘Cheers,’ you know, where everybody knows your name? It’s just a magical place, and I’m happy to be a member of the Germantown Espresso Bar community.”
As it stands, the shop will remain open until the end of the month. Their announcement says the public can stay updated with ongoing developments surrounding their move, including a soon-to-come GoFundMe, on their Instagram. Though the final “Mappening is Happening” was planned for October, the last one will be on September 24.
Butler ensures that while they are moving, they will remain in Germantown. “Change is hard,” he says. “But change is also life. Arguably the only constant, other than our delicious coffee. But just because we’re shifting how and where we operate doesn’t mean we shift our hearts. Thank you to everyone.”