When the 35W bridge collapsed in August 2007, 29th Avenue and Johnson Street corner businesses could have died if not for neighbors who went out of their way to keep shopping there, in part making up for the downtown folks who could no longer easily get there for lunches.
That’s according to Mary (Colón) Cassidy, who purchased what was then Audubon Coffee in 1996 shortly after it opened. The coffee shop’s humble beginnings ushered in the latest wave of businesses keeping the corner vital. Missy Dodge remembers a group of “J-Street Ladies” who all opened businesses about the same time, the early 2000s.
The neighbors-and-business love affair has gone on for as long as anyone can remember, but this story pretty much starts when the merchants formally drew up documents together to assure free parking for shoppers.
The “first” 20 years
In 1984, there was a restaurant, bakery, drug store, antique store and and other assorted businesses in the 2800 block of Johnson Street NE. What was most recently Easy Way was the Tom Thumb, and the other grocery store, an independent, had gone out, replaced by EMI, a music equipment rental place.
March 19, 1984, with Howie Ekberg the pharmacist as president, they filed non-profit paperwork a few weeks before buying, as the association, the parking lot at 2832-36-40 Johnson Street from Dale and Jacqueline Johnson. Technically, they bought it from John and Patricia Tschohl, who it appears acquired it on the same day from the Johnsons, and sold it for $42,000, or $2,000 more than they paid.
Floyd Duffee, of Duffee’s Northeast Hardware, and Steven Schaff rounded out the officer slate. Henry Czupryna of Dinsmore Cleaners, Thomas Hahne of Bob’s Radio & TV at 2600 Johnson St. NE, and insurance agent Bill Pudney also signed up for the board, and they listed recent arrival Rich Ledin of Antiques & Stuff.
Joe Micek, a broker in one of four realty offices in that block, notarized the incorporation document, but he remembers more the informal meetings with coffee and pastries at the pharmacy, and annual social gatherings.
According to ads in the fledgling Northeaster newspapers of 1979 to 1981 and beyond, they held Krazy Days shopping promotions and would occasionally offer free movie nights in December at the Hollywood Theater as customer appreciation events.
Though the Hollywood showed its last film in 1987, the Johnson Street Shopping Center Association (JSSCA), aka Johnson Street Merchants Association (JSMA), lives on. They now treat customers to Halloween trick-or-treating and the annual Johnstock, a 16- year tradition of music, crafts and “free love.” The Hollywood, after years of decay and then stabilization, is finally ready to entertain a commercial or office tenant.
In the early 1990s, merchants agreed to leave the “top three parking spaces in all rows open for customers” in the parking lot. They wanted to keep street spots in front of businesses for the customers of those businesses, and asked that merchants and employees park at the back of the lot, or further out in the neighborhood if no spaces were available.
In 1993, at the merchants’ request to alderman Walt Dziedzic, Johnson between 28th and 29th was posted for one-hour parking. The merchants issued an index-card sized notice that could be left on delinquent car windshields as a courtesy that “we will be asking for enforcement of this parking limit.”
When Fairview Family Medical Clinics took over the drugstore space in March 1994, then JSSCA president Robert Hollister wrote to them, urging them to “complete the acquisition of property for off-street parking as soon as possible.” That was just six months after helping with city requirements by leasing them 22 of the 46 spots in the merchants’ lot. Contractors working on the Fairview build-out used some of the street spaces and would free them up when the clinic opened, but it was anticipated they still would need more capacity.
Fairview did soon after acquire the property that is now their parking lot. It held the real estate office of George Johnson, who leased to Antiques & Stuff during their five years in the early 1980s. The site also included rental housing and a small brick and concrete building with a vacuum cleaner shop, said the owner of Maggy’s, who has been on the block among the longest of the tenants. Her beauty shop is in the building Joe Micek built in front of a duplex in 1968. He had been renting on the block, and due to a competitive situation decided to own his own place. He traded his residence at that time, with the owner of the duplex, and built a two story place with a rental apartment upstairs. Ed Schwartz owns it now.
Over the years, the merchants policed themselves regarding the lot, at one time threatening to tow a merchant’s car for defying the dues structure. In the mid-1990s, EMI paid dues for four spaces. Others paid dues based on one or two spots.
A 2009 letter to members reiterated, “your business did not ‘buy’ parking spaces,” and said, “Do not take up two spaces or leave the rear end of your car sticking out blocking thru traffic.”
The dues collected, while enough to pay the lot’s real estate taxes, electricity and stormwater fees, often fell short of covering maintenance needs. Correspondence indicates estimates were periodically sought for seal coating. Recommendations would come back that the asphalt was in too bad shape to hold a seal coat and should be replaced; they might get bids on that. The merchants would then have the lot striped as-is and think about collecting to cover more extensive repairs. A particularly snowy winter could result in special snow removal charges. That cycle continues today.
Late 1990s to present: Young women take the reins
In the mid-1990s when the coffee shop opened the neighborhood was “fairly sketchy,” Mary Cassidy remembers, with “muggings, school problems and bus issues. It was teetering, and could go either way.”
She offered to work for just tips, and eventually bought the shop, which originated next to the laundromat on the corner (the laundromat is now A Bag Lady). Mary now owns Maeve’s at 13th and 3rd, and sold Audubon to sisters Jodi Lund and Jenni Horton, who had opened dabble, a gift shop, in her space when Mary moved a few doors down to develop part of EMI’s space.
“I fell in love with coffee and the sense of neighborhood,” Mary said, describing studying in Florence, Italy and seeing how the coffee shops there created a sense of family.
That Johnson Street family had its characters, from colorful tenants, to a fellow who carried everything he owned, including his money, in a trash bag. When his estranged family came to deal with his passing, they found thousands of coffee shop receipts (which he insisted on, even for a simple cup of coffee). They invited the coffee shop family to attend the funeral.
And when another regular died, “we buried him, he had no family.” Mary remembers stories of regulars of all stripes palavering with each other about homosexuality, immigrants, and other social and political topics of the day.
Jim Hollister at the insurance company, and Linda Skowronek, their longtime assistant, had a TV that they brought over to the coffee shop September 11, 2001 when the first plane crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. “People watched, stunned, at the second plane,” Mary said. “Nobody left, they stayed and cried and hugged each other. Nobody went to work.” The same thing happened with Paul Wellstone’s death October 25, 2002.
The years 2003 through 2007 saw an infusion of energy on the corner, with Johnstock starting in 2003 and banners going up in 2005, paid for by Audubon Neighborhood Association (ANA) through Neighborhood Revitalization program funds. Missy Dodge, who served as JSMA president starting 2006 after Jenni Horton, said, “ANA money was huge for us, they were begging us to spend it.”
Dodge, a former Star Tribune graphic designer, took over re-branding in 2004 and designed a logo and posters for the second year of Johnstock, held in conjunction with the May Art-A-Whirl. She made membership stickers, Halloween trick-or-treat bags, and a tri-fold brochure listing the merchants. The group had an annual meeting potluck, “even Bill Fignar [a past president] came.”
It was transition time, with younger women taking over for the older guys. (And from Linda Skowronek, who had done much of the merchants’ association’s work as well as keeping the insurance agency running.)
Dodge said those who opened or bought businesses at about that same time included herself with Oh, Cool Baby (and later, J Street Studio graphic design), Michele Vevang with Foiled Again Salon, Jodi Lund and Jenni Horton with dabble, Mary Colón at Audubon Coffee, Sharon Coleman with Infusions, Karen Ostlund and Jill Fisher. They tried a ladies’ shopping night promotion that went fairly well, and one year the group marched in the parade on Central Avenue.
In 2006, the restaurants were Pop and Snap. Just one realty office remained on the corner: Jud Lauzon’s IBR at 2844 Johnson where the Northeaster is now, with Jim Hollister’s Farmer’s Insurance at 2846 and the ANA office at 2848. “Sam” had the Easy Way, the former Tom Thumb store. Rewind was at 2829 Johnson (now across the street renting from The Coffee Shop Northeast). Opposable Thumbs Bookstore, eventually the one actual casualty of the bridge collapse by Mary’s estimation, located at 2833 Johnson in mid-2006 (where Knit & Bolt is now, and Crafty Planet before that).
“It was the time of my life,” Dodge said, “we were building something for the whole community, especially the coffee shop. It was the start of being a community, all our little kids grew up together.”
Planters and bike racks were another product of that general time frame, though the racks were almost immediately run over by cars, and the planters were eventually decommissioned also having suffered damage and weather.
Recently, the merchants association, half paid for by the city of Minneapolis, bought the orange bike racks lining the block today. And the new banners, some of which are waiting on various factors to be installed, were obtained through a Great Streets grant and using a new design by Missy Dodge.
Audubon Park Neighborhood Association still participates with the JSMA association and anticipates the neighborhood’s new branding will incorporate elements of the merchants’ branding. The merchants’ parking lot was awarded a planning grant through Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to come up with a design proposal for better on-site water management when and if the lot is re-done. It’s one of three such grants given within the watershed that could lead to models for what to do when a lot has a definite slope from one end to the other. Probably the furthest thing from their minds when the guys first banded together to buy it.
Disclosure: Margo Ashmore, Northeaster publisher, is current JSMA president.
Sources: JSSCA/JSMA files, Hennepin County records, Northeaster archives at the Hennepin County Library Northeast location, and interviews.
Below: A merchants social dinner, perhaps 1950s, with “Hardware Bud,” Wyn, who owned the beauty shop that eventually became Maggy’s, and “Sunny’s” in the middle. Photo courtesy of Maggy’s. Micek Realty ad from a 1980 Northeaster. Bob’s Radio-TV station wagon, courtesy of Ron Schutta, son of Bob Schutta, the original owner, circa 1960s. The shop started in a building on what is now Washburn McReavy’s parking lot north of 29th. a promotional piece from the merchants, likely from the early 1960s. (Courtesy of Ron Schutta). Promotion for the 6th year of Johnstock, when it still coincided with Art-A-Whirl. (Graphic by Missy Dodge)