When visual artist Stacey Douglas opened Espressit in 2008, she was mostly thinking about it as a place for coffee, muffins and mosaics.
Her shop in Westmont has since evolved into a takeout/eat-in restaurant, gallery, performance venue and community space — as well as a key ingredient in Haddon Avenue’s revival. It’s a showcase for her gorgeous mosaic work, too.
“Espressit just unfolded as it was meant to. I found all the right pieces, all the right people,” said Douglas, describing the shop as “an act of inspiration that worked out.”
The unfolding continues. Espressit is for sale. Douglas feels the need “to do more learning” and is ready to move on.
“There’s no firm offer and no firm date,” she told me one morning last week. “I’m open to the possibilities. Anything can happen.”
Customers and fans, including me, can’t help but wonder what will happen to Espressit.
After all, coffee shops come, go and change owners all over the place and all the time. But with its customer mix, eclectic menu, lively art exhibits and selection of greeting cards by local artisans, Espressit is not just another java joint.
“It’s like a community hub,” said Douglas. “A sanctuary.”
Its owner is an LGBTQ-friendly committed Christian, a choreographer and teacher who once participated in an “environmental dance movement theater” piece she wryly likened to “a lot of old hippies dancing around in the forest.”
Douglas was born in Southern California and grew up in the New York City suburbs. Both her parents were artists, and her father, a yogi, introduced her to the practice, as well as to meditation.
In the early 1980s, Douglas became an apprentice to Steve Meyerowitz, “the Sprout Man,” sprouting seeds in flaxseed bags and growing wheat grass for making crackers. She’s been involved in cooking ever since.
Her personal and professional story includes retreats and other spiritual pursuits of many kinds, with healthy food as an essential narrative thread.
In 1993 she moved to South Jersey after a divorce, living first in Collingswood (“they had a health food store, a post office and a library”) and then Haddon Township.
She was an art teacher in the township schools for many years and now works for the Perkins Center for the Arts, bringing programs to local schools. She just finished a residency at Lawnside Elementary.
And then there’s Espressit,
“We serve simple, [mainly] vegetarian and vegan food that anyone can eat,” said baker Kim Mikhail, who lives in Pennsauken and has worked at Espressit for three years. “We have options for everybody, including bacon.”
Said manager Kat Agront of Oaklyn, who can generally be found behind the counter in the morning, “Everyone — the CEO or the janitor, it doesn’t matter — is welcome here. It doesn’t matter what your politics are or what your position in life is. It’s important to Stacey that we make everyone feel like family here.”
Douglas said she is surprised when people tell me that Espressit so reflects her personality — because she’d prefer to be behind the scenes.
“I don’t want to come across as unfriendly, but I know that sometimes I do come across that way. What I really want to be is a customer. When people are in here hobnobbing, I’d like to sit down with them, relax, and then walk home.”
There’s plenty of hobnobbing to be found at Espressit, which is located on a walkable stretch of Haddon Avenue where strip malls and auto-centric businesses collide with traditional retail blocks.
“Stacey has created this thing that people love,” said musician and teacher Barry Hollander, who worked at Espressit for five years beginning in 2009 and still performs at open mic sessions there. “It’s been a positive influence.”
Hollander likens Espressit to an urban coffee shop with a suburban twist. “It’s not just for young, cool people,” he said. “It’s for all ages.”
On a recent morning I chatted with Haddonfield octogenarians David Coggins and Carl Rittmayer, who enjoy the steel-cut oatmeal.
“We have a routine. We’re here twice a week,” Coggins said. “We just hope Stacey is able to find someone who will keep up the quality.”
Doing so takes a lot of effort, said Douglas.
“People told me running a business is 24/7, but I didn’t know what that meant,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes and done things the wrong way.”
Nevertheless, “I always went for where I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do,” said Douglas. “I’ve discovered the entrepreneurial part of my spirit, but been on this track for so long I feel like I haven’t exercised other muscles.
“I’d like to continue doing mosaics and murals. I want to continue to do the cooking thing, but I feel like there’s something else brewing. I’m not sure what it is.”
I wish Douglas well as she pursues her muse(s). And I hope whoever buys Espressit will take the opportunity to do the same.