Espresso Bar: A Novel Idea

March 15, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

If anyone thought Towson's new cosmopolitan image was a mirage, consider the latest evidence that the venerable Baltimore County seat has turned trendy: an espresso bar in the county library.

It's the work of an entrepreneur from the West Coast and a library director who has long been willing to try new tricks to get customers into the door.

"People really like it," said John Hearn after a week or so behind his $15,000 portable bar, which serves book borrowers a frothy elixir brewed by forcing steam through powdered coffee beans.

Mr. Hearn, 33, who arrived here from Seattle toting two espresso bars in a truck, opened for business March 6 in the circular, former main lobby where used books once were sold. Elliot Bay Espresso "Seattle Style," his first East Coast venture, is on a 60- to 90-day trial.

No other library system in the Baltimore metropolitan area has an espresso bar, although Averil Kadis, spokeswoman for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, said director Carla Hayden wants one in the central library downtown.

For many longtime residents, the library's espresso bar represents yet another step along Towson's journey from its once-quiet, courthouse-dominated past.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the county seat became an office and restaurant center. In the 1990s its development took a new turn with the opening of Towson Commons, a multiscreen cinema, office, shopping and restaurant complex across York Road from the library, and the morphing of a nearby strip shopping center called Towson Plaza into Towson Town Center, an upscale, palm-studded mall.

In November, Mr. Hearn arrived with his small enterprise. He was looking for locations to set up an espresso business and decided to check out Towson.

"I was just walking up the street, looking at county buildings," he said. Strolling past the Chamber of Commerce at Washington and Pennsylvania avenues, he stopped in to talk to Richard Aarons, a business counselor.

Mr. Aarons immediately thought of the success that Borders, the York Road mega-book store, has had with its second-floor espresso bar. Then he thought of the library and its director, Charles Robinson, a man known for his willingness to try something new.

The library director said the proposal sounded good to him. "I know there's one in the lobby of the central library in Milwaukee," he said.

Mr. Robinson also had a place for the enterprise. Since the construction of an addition and a high-rise parking garage on the Towson library's east side two years ago, the lobby of the old main entrance at York Road and Chesapeake Avenue had been empty.

Before the lobby could become espresso central, Mr. Hearn had to go through two months of seeking county business and health permits.

But it paid off. Almost immediately after it opened, the espresso bar got good reviews.

"It's very, very tasty," secretary Catherine Hallameyer said. "I love it."

Ms. Hallameyer shrugged at the $1 to $2 per cup price tag. "I figure it's my lunch," she said. Mr. Hearn also sells fruit juices and pastries.

The espresso bar has won praise from Towson's civic and business leaders. Even Chris Brenchley, a spokesman for Borders, had no objection.

"It's a format these days that's really common," Mr. Brenchley said. "A lot of people have come to expect that."

Meanwhile, Mr. Hearn and Mr. Robinson are thinking bigger. Mr. Robinson would like to get the stand closer to the people who enter the library from the third-floor garage level. They toyed with the idea of adding a few tables and chairs in the old lobby entrance.

For now, the library is collecting $100 a month for the rented space and watching with interest to see if Mr. Hearn can boost the $40 to $50 daily take. If things work out for Mr. Hearn, "We want a piece of the action," Mr. Robinson said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hearn has a second espresso cart stored in a library closet while he searches for a hospital, government or institutional building for his second venture.

Elliot Bay Espresso "Seattle Style" is open the same hours as the library -- Sundays noon to 5 p.m.; Mondays through Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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