Offbeat cafe thrives as hidden treasure trove

Shop offers coffee, gifts and a place to relax

May 16, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Inside a cookie-cutter Columbia office building, next to the security guard's desk and around the corner from the post office, the gurgling sound of a bubbling brook spills out into the hall.

Move closer and the warm hiss of an espresso machine can be heard. Laughter and the smell of lavender-scented aromatherapy candles linger in the air.

In an age when coffee bars often reside in mammoth corporate bookstores, the Meeting Point cafe and bookstore looks, smells, sounds and tastes a bit like old-school Columbia, before it became just another glossy suburb.

"It's kind of a haven in here between the music, the fountains, the good food and the lovely smells," says Michele Hartson, a Hyattsville resident who works for the Enterprise Foundation in Columbia. "It's a real respite from the world. It's also lovely if you want a card or gift."

"The place itself is very rich," says Hartson, who stops by the cafe as often as she can. "Rich to the senses."

That's what the Meeting Point's opera- tors intend.

"This place is kind of known as Columbia's best-kept secret," says the cafe's manager, Blaize Connelly-Duggan. "People can stop in on their way to work for a cup of coffee, but you kind of have to know we're here in the first place."

He is the son of Dianne Connelly and Bob Duggan, founders of the Traditional Acupuncture Institute (TAI) of Columbia, one of the country's oldest and largest acupuncture schools -- and the cafe's sponsor.

Located in the American City building next to Columbia Association's headquarters on Wincopin Circle, the 4-year-old cafe has no sign outside. During the week, it relies on foot traffic from people who work in the office buildings that surround Lake Kittamaqundi in downtown Columbia.

"The thing I like about the Meeting Point is that it's just that," says Ellicott City resident and TAI student Cheryl Walker. "Every time I come in here, I run into someone I know."

Another TAI student, Linda Gdowik, says it feels like home.

"After class, I come in here just to browse and play with everything," she says. "I may get something to eat and a chai tea."

The Meeting Point has acquired a faithful following, built by word of mouth.

"It's a really peaceful place and I love coming in here to just look around," says former County Executive and current state Del. Elizabeth Bobo; she recently visited the cafe to pick out a fountain that her husband, Lloyd Knowles, bought for her. "You can come in and stay for ages. And it's a wonderful place for last-minute gifts."

There are tinkling wind chimes, offbeat hand-painted picture frames, off-the-wall greeting cards, scented candles, stones carved with Chinese characters, whimsical sheets of wrapping paper and original art and photography hanging on the walls.

The aromatherapy section alone takes up a few bookcases in the middle of the cafe: All manner of lotions, potions, salves and ointments can be sampled. The smell of java mixed with essential oils creates a heady atmosphere.

Music compact discs, incense, lamps, posters, puppets and children's books can be found next to the latest books by best-selling authors Deepak Chopra and Dr. Andrew Weil.

Everything in the cafe is selected to appeal to the five senses. Many gifts also represent the traditional Chinese elements (fire, earth, metal, water and wood).

A small, framed photograph of the late James W. Rouse, Columbia's founder and the cafe's patron saint, sits on a shelf behind the coffee counter.

Rouse's pioneering and inclusive spirit is clearly felt in the cafe, says Connelly-Duggan.

"It's true, it's very Columbia," he says with a laugh. "Some people might say that's a negative thing, but the cafe is really the best of what Columbia was intended to be: a place where people can get together and co-exist peacefully."

The cafe's busiest times are the morning and lunch hours, though the place really gets hopping after each TAI class, when students stream into the cafe for a sandwich or a French pastry.

With 40 or 50 people in the store, the place becomes "a real hub and they bring a lot of energy in," says Allie Wolf, the cafe's merchandising manager and buyer.

When the Meeting Point opened in 1996, it offered a limited number of acupuncture textbooks for TAI students and a simple coffee bar. Gifts were limited to token items like notebooks and mugs, and no food was sold.

Three years ago, Wolf added more offbeat gifts from about 100 vendors. Since then, sales have increased six-fold. All proceeds from the cafe fund TAI's Penn North clinic, a Baltimore walk-in facility that uses acupuncture to treat drug addiction.

"Like any business, the Meeting Point has been evolving as a store," says Matt Scanlon, a TAI clinic administrator and the cafe's first manager. "We've created a third place that's not home and not work. It's a place where people can meet informally sort of like a pub."

If the Meeting Point is different from any other cafe in Columbia, it most closely resembles in spirit the famed Mrs. Z's cafe, a mom-and-pop restaurant opened in Columbia in the mid-1970s that served home-style food in a laid-back, homey atmosphere.

After the restaurant burned in 1979, the cafe's owner, Peg Zabawa, now 80, decided not to rebuild.

So it's up to the Meeting Place to hold down the fort.

Plans include a possible expansion to a larger site and adding more book titles to the growing business.

"People really feel a sense of community in the store," Wolf says. "It's a different kind of place. We try to create a whole environment in the store so that people feel comfortable."

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