MULBERRY STREET COFFEEHOUSE: HAND-CRAFTING AN AUTHENTIC SPACE
STORY & IMAGES BY CAI SEPULIS
It’s a quiet morning on James Street North in Hamilton and the air is still damp from last night’s storm. A slight fog lingers in the air. I marvel at the iconic, round Mulberry Street Coffeehouse sign swinging above me and take a few photos before going in. ‘That sign used to be a table,’ managing partner Ella Shepherd will inform me later over food and drinks. ‘And that one,’ she’ll add, pointing to a big neon ‘M’ that sits above another door, ‘is from an old Shopper’s Drug Mart sign.’ Handcrafted personal touches – and traces of re-purposing – are everywhere.
Coffee shops and the idea of ‘handcraft’ are a natural fit, and Mulberry is a perfect instance of this confluence. Fresh coffee. In-house baked goods. Delightful items to invigorate the senses on a sleepy morning. This space, already full with people seemingly camped out for the morning, conveys an authentic sense of home – mine, yours, ours – with its plants in the window, rustic tables, exposed walls, tin ceiling and comfy chairs. Clear evidence of a community coming together and not-to-be-missed comfort food are qualities that make a great and welcoming coffee shop. In my own travels, finding the coffee shop the locals call home is always on my list. On today’s trip to Steeltown, Mulberry fits the bill perfectly.
Fresh coffee and warm pastries – including the coffeehouse’s coveted lemon loaf – in front of us, Ella and I sit in what regulars call ‘The Baking Room.’ We manage to get only a few words in before someone comes by to say hi to Ella, the unproclaimed Queen of Mulberry Street. Ella, who grew up in Vancouver and moved to Hamilton twenty years ago, tells me that she knew right away Hamilton was home. ‘People say the West Coast is chill, but they must have never met Hamiltonians,’ she confides. I agree.
Because Ella experienced the city as warm and welcoming, and found the revitalization that was happening on James Street exhilarating, she jumped at the chance to open the coffeehouse when the opportunity presented itself nine years ago. It was then that she partnered with Roger Abbiss, local businessman and environmental demi-god, to bring Mulberry to life. (Read about Roger’s other initiatives – including coffeecology, Bikeables, and Dundurn Market – in TOQUE issue 6.) Their visions for the coffeehouse
aligned perfectly from the start; that is, to establish a place that offered, in Ella’s words, ‘fair trade coffee, as organic and local as possible, and good food at fair prices. And,’ she adds, ‘a welcoming destination where members of the community might want to stay all day.’
A destination that’s full of nooks and crannies – and a rich history too. As Ella tells me: ‘The building itself was constructed in the late 1800’s as the ‘Armoury Hotel,’ whose main purpose was to serve the armed forces stationed in the monstrous red-bricked Armoury [still in use] across the street.
Later,’ she continues, ‘the hotel became a laundromat. And now, after numerous expansions and renovations, it’s Mulberry.’ Coffeehouse. And gallery, too, which is put to good use – especially when the James Street Art Crawl and annual Super Crawl pack the streets.
While I watch the first pints of the day being poured in the distance (Collective Arts – for anyone keeping tabs), Ella and I talk more about the space and what it took to open its doors. ‘Over six months of ripping down walls, putting up walls, tearing up the floor, exposing old treasures,’ Ella explains. ‘Roger and I tried to keep the space as authentic as possible,’ she tells me, ‘by incorporating the original tile flooring, exposed brick, and other finishes and details’.
And yet these two were also not afraid to incorporate local relics from outside the original space into their design. As Ella notes: ‘Roger has always been something of a ‘master salvager’ – giving items from further afield new life here at Mulberry.’ Like the high-top table where we’re sitting, which Roger sourced from the now defunct Susie’s Diner (which would have been located just down the block, where the White Elephant boutique is now). And the chalkboards that were sourced from the now closed Parkside High School in Dundas. And a unique photographic installation by artist Jeff Tessier that extends the place’s homage to the past – lighting up sepia-toned photographs in a lightbox-meets-chandelier type of fixture.
When our server brings over more food, I murmur to myself, ‘Oh sure, I can stay a bit longer,’ unable as I am to resist the vivid salad bowls in front of us. ‘And you have to try one of these, too,’ Ella demands – splitting a cupcake with me. ‘It’s gluten free,’ she adds. It doesn’t disappoint. I am more than content.
As the sunlight streams through the rustic arched windows and dances through the steam of my third coffee, Ella regales me with more intriguing stories. Of this space. And city. And of herself too. I take another sip and look around. Here I am, like so many others, camped and cozy. In good company and with great food. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the perfect way to spend the day. Basking in this home away from home.