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Bay St. Louis residents view it as a symbol of their recovery from Hurricane Katrina

Mockingbird Café much more than coffee house

What is to be done when your home, business and whole town have been destroyed by a monstrous hurricane? Plus, there is a baby on the way. Some people head for the hills. Others, such as Alicein and Martin Chambers of Bay St. Louis, open a coffee shop.

The Mockingbird Café opened in August 2006 amid the rubble and destruction of Old Town. It quickly became much more than a coffee and sandwich shop as it evolved into an important gathering place for a hurting, grieving community struggling to cope.

“As soon as it opened, the Mockingbird Café was more than a place for coffee. It was a place we could meet family and friends; like a living room,” said Chamber of Commerce executive director Tish Williams. “It meant so much to people who had lost so much.”

Following Katrina, 100 percent of the town’s businesses were shut down; 50 percent were severely damaged or destroyed. Across the Mississippi Coast, the lives of 400,000 survivors were changed forever.

Many of the residents of Bay St. Louis who remained were crowded in with friends and relatives or lived in tiny FEMA campers or tents as they dealt with loss and fought the red tape of insurance and bureaucracy. That made a visit to a pleasant coffee shop an especially nice experience.

Neither of the Chambers had experience running a restaurant or coffee shop.

“Opening the Mockingbird was truly a labor of love,” she said. “I evacuated to Atlanta where I stayed with my sister and the baby was born. Martin stayed behind to clean up … He kept telling me Bay St. Louis needed a coffee shop.”

The Chambers purchased a 143-year-old house on Second Street in Old Town that miraculously escaped most of Katrina’s wrath. They made the necessary repairs and without a formal marketing survey, opened the business with faith and optimism.

“We felt the support of the town from the start. People needed a place to have a good cup of coffee and tell their stories,” Chambers says. “For sure there were some nights when we thought, ‘What have we done?’ But the Mockingbird became a community center and it was great to watch the progress of rebuilding in Old Town.”

In addition to being a place to meet, eat and drink coffee, the Mockingbird is a refuge, art gallery, live music venue, volunteer welcome center and visitor attraction.

For their community spirit and tenacity, the Chambers were named citizen of the year in 2007 by the Hancock Chamber.

“Small business owners are the backbone of our economy. They’re what has brought this area back and most did it through their own true grit and determination,” Williams said when the award was presented. “Alicein and Martin have shown a remarkable commitment to rebuilding Old Town Bay St. Louis. They have been identified in regional publications to draw visitors to the area. Both are active in the Old Town Merchants Association, and Martin is a member of the Historic Preservation Commission.”

Alicein, a native of Bay St. Louis, and Martin, a native of Ireland, met in New Orleans where she had a business and he came to Jazz Fest and never left. They have been married nine years and are the parents of a son, Ronan Atticus Chambers, who will be three years old next month. Martin is a skilled, old-school mason who is busy working on rebuilding projects in Bay St. Louis.

At the time of Hurricane Katrina, Alicein owned a gift ware design company. From a studio and warehouse in New Orleans, she designed and distributed gift ware and clocks that were manufactured in China and Mexico. Both facilities were destroyed by Katrina, along with their Bay St. Louis home that they had occupied only eight months.

“I had been trying to figure out how to stop commuting from Bay St. Louis to New Orleans. Katrina made that decision for me,” she recalled.

A rental house they owned in Bay St. Louis escaped destruction and the Martins were able to move into it when she returned from evacuation in Atlanta. Then the couple bought the historic house that became the Mockingbird Café.

“It was scary,” she said. “But, everybody in town was a little bit out of their minds at that time. We’re so thankful for the support of Bay St. Louis and the love we’ve felt that we built something people love.”

From the beginning, the café has served coffee drinks, pastries, salads, bagels and sandwiches. Plus, it sells Serious Bread made locally by Al Jensen, known around town as the “Bread Man.” A retired NASA scientist from Stennis Space Center, Jensen is indulging his passion for making bread.

However, all has not been smooth sailing at the Mockingbird. There was an outpouring of dismay last fall when the Chambers announced the closing of the popular gathering place. Various discouraging issues, including out-of-control insurance costs and recessionary times, made keeping the café open seem a daunting task.

Williams recalled the night people met at the Mockingbird for what they thought would be the last night of business.

“I felt like I was losing my best friend. We gathered there, had a concert and were all in tears,” she said. It felt like something out of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when a banker came up and said he would help them re-organize and stay open.

“It felt really good,” she said. This business is about faith. We have that when we’ve lost everything else.”

Chambers said they made some major changes in the business and added a tenant, a yoga studio, in the upstairs space. “We will be smart and get through the bad times,” she said. “It’s a waiting game as the town improves. It will get better.”

She feels the rest of the country is catching up with the recession that has been going on in Bay St. Louis since the 2005 storm.

Williams pointed out that the town lost population and its traditional tourism market, which means a limited customer base for businesses. “We want people to know we’re still here and open for business,” she said. “There’s always something going on here and we have high optimism for our businesses.”

Chambers cringes when she reads tips on surviving the recession that include giving up that morning latte.

“It’s not just a morning latte you get; you get the morning update of what’s going on in the community,” she said. “We’ll make it through the recession. We’ve been through hard stuff. We’re hopeful for Bay St. Louis and we’re going to be here.”

Presently, Beach Boulevard and other streets in Old Town are being rebuilt – a sign of progress but a challenge for customers of the Mockingbird. Chambers knows this, too, will pass and is making plans to add a Sunday brunch to the menu this summer. The café employs five people and is open every day.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at lynn@lynnsdesk.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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