Small Business Spotlight: Attic Gallery & Hwy. 61 Coffee
by Stephen McDill
Published: July 11,2010
There’s a little bit here for everyone
Art gallery and coffee house are Vicksburg traditions
Nestled in the heart of the historic district of Vicksburg, just steps away from the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum and a refurbished Civil War cannon, the Attic Gallery and Highway 61 Coffeehouse offer visitors something for all of their senses.
The two businesses, co-owned by husband and wife Daniel W. Boone and Lesley Silver, are a mixed-use development success story for the River City. Boone and Silver purchased the late 19th century building in 1997, the same year they were married, and converted it into a second home for Silver’s popular gallery. Boone opened Highway 61 in 2006.
Inside the brightly lit cafe, locals gather for coffee, smoothies and bagels, a throw-back to the pre-Internet days when the general store was the place to go to meet people and hear news and gossip. Black-and-white photographs of rural Mississippi scenes and citizens fill the establishment, connecting the business to its legendary namesake U.S. 61, the “Blues Highway,” that runs north through the Mississippi Delta from Vicksburg to Clarksdale. “We have our coffee roasted for us once a week. It’s ground right before the customers consume it,” Boone said.
After polishing off an espresso and pastry, guests can travel up the narrow staircase in the foyer of Highway 61 to visit the Attic Gallery. The art gallery is “an undeniable treasure trove” of outsider art, regional art, fine crafts, pottery and photography. Works from Mississippi artists like Paul Fayard and Ellen Langford are on display as well as pieces from New Orleans painter Kathy Gergo. The shop also highlights Silver’s own interest in folk art. “It’s organic; it lives and breathes,” Silver writes in her blog about the shop’s purpose. “Dynamic, inclusive. It encourages expansion of tastes and sensibilities. It’s a place hidden away from the mainstream.”
Silver, moved to Vicksburg from Birmingham, Ala., in 1964 and opened up her gallery above a jewelry and bridal shop on Washington Street in 1971. “When I started the gallery, I was wearing blue jeans — and nobody was wearing blue jeans at that time,” Silver said. “I got looked at and lots of remarks were made to me. It was a dressier time downtown.”
Boone grew up in Vicksburg and began working for Silver that year as a picture framer. He said that the business climate, as well as the fashion climate, was going through changes during that period. “What I remember was the transition from the ‘60s, where, especially downtown, all of these things were ‘mom and pop’ businesses — they were family businesses,” he said. “The downtown was full of little places to eat on every block.”
Franchises were on the rise that decade across the country, and family-owned businesses, including many in Vicksburg, started losing their grip on the local economy.
Both Boone and Silver remain skeptical about the neighboring casino industry’s impact on business in the historic district. Their building overlooks the Horizon Casino, built on the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1990’s. “Before they came, we expected and were led to believe there would be traffic jams,” Boone said. “The early days they got here, the casinos did well. Any service you had that they could use benefited you. We did framing and sold some art to them — but as far as seeing shopping traffic — it’s just not there, it doesn’t happen.”
“We did see some people get greedy because they assumed our businesses were going to take off,” Silver said. “They raised rent and prices and forced people out. People couldn’t afford it and closed their businesses.”
The bottom line, Boone and Silver agree, is that people who gamble don’t shop. Silver said sometimes people will visit Attic Gallery and say, “If I go to the casino and win some money then I’m going to come back and buy that.” She never sees them again. “Unlike the Gulf Coast’s Highway 90, (casino patrons) didn’t have to come onto our street — and they don’t,” Boone said.
On the brighter side, the combination of coffee and art, along with the hiker-friendly topography, make Attic Gallery and Highway 61 a special destination for Southern culture enthusiasts from as far away as Europe. “They always sit outside,” Boone said, adding that both businesses have been mentioned in travel guides in Germany and Japan.
The couple is remodeling the building’s third floor into a private residence so they can have 24-hour access to their vocations. The thin economic air continues to have a sobering effect on small businesses like Attic Gallery and Highway 61. Boone said that, as an owner, he feels a daily responsibility for his employees. He remains positive that the continued growth of mixed-used development and other local establishments in Vicksburg will continue.
“Every time I visit a large city, I’m daunted until I find somewhere special where I can spend a few hours in,” Boone said. “We feel that the more downtown areas become neighborhoods the better.”
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