St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, a fixture on Mount Vernon Avenue is celebrating its 10th anniversary April 27 through 29. But ask Nora Partlow, the owner of St. Elmo’s, to talk about the last 10 years and after two sentences she has already gone back 60, to the days when Del Ray was a railroad town.
At first it seems Partlow has gotten lost on a long tangent. What could the history of Del Ray possibly have to do with one bustling coffee shop tucked onto its main street? Everything, it turns out.
The area now called Del Ray was initially populated by railroad workers at Potomac Yard and their wealthy bosses. Warwick Village was built for military families linked to the Pentagon. Mount Vernon Avenue was the commercial spine. “The avenue was the place where people came to shop for clothing, shoes… a little bit of main street America, basically,” says Partlow. But in the 1960’s, riots in response to the civil rights movement decimated the community.
Twenty years later, it was still far from recovery. When Partlow moved to Del Ray from New Jersey in 1985, Mount Vernon Avenue was lined with boarded-up businesses. “[There were] a couple of what you call ‘honky-tonks,’” Partlow says, but “very few destination places, [only] Los Amigos, R.T.’s, The Snuggery.” Partlow found a job as a hostess at The Snuggery, and was eventually promoted to bartender. As a bartender, she got to know many of the young, single residents of the neighborhood. As the years passed, they began getting married and having children. These young couples confided to Partlow that they wanted to keep coming to a place where they could mingle with their neighbors, but they needed an atmosphere where their children would be welcome as well.
Intrigued, Partlow started a partnership with Scott Mitchell, a home renovator who “had a vision.” Over nine months the two began researching the business opportunity. “We did a survey and we did what the people said.”
PARTLOW EXPLAINED that St. Elmo’s serves no alcohol, has no televisions, a no-cell phone rule and is kid-friendly. “It did become exactly what people wanted, a place where people could gather.” She named St. Elmo’s a coffee “pub” because pubs are community gathering places. Partlow opened St. Elmo's in April, 1996. Within months, she realized it would need more space to accommodate demand. She bought the store next door and knocked it down, doubling the size of the coffee shop in December of the same year.
Partlow said that before 1996, “a lot of businesses and came and went.” There was conflict between the citizen’s association and the business community. But eventually they started working together. “I think it was change of leadership. Some of the old leadership was still thinking the old way of ‘We can’t have this.’ [There were] people who were afraid of change — being negative — people were afraid to say they lived in Del Ray.”
But the opening of St. Elmo’s, and its immediate success, changed how her neighbors perceived their community. “It’s one of those things, if you give it hope other people start. People actually started to say, ‘We live in Del Ray.’”
Soon other businesses, like Mancini’s and The Daily Planet, followed St. Elmo’s lead, and Del Ray was one of the country’s hottest up-and-coming communities. It was profiled in “Southern Living” magazine and the television show “The View.” Realtors were kept busy showing houses in the neighborhood to upwardly mobile young families, and they always brought them by St. Elmo’s. Partlow describes frequent visits by realtors with prospective buyers in tow, and she said that many customers come up and tell her, “I bought my house here because of your coffee shop.”
IT IS OFTEN UNCLEAR whether Partlow is talking about the Del Ray community or about her customers. “Here everybody’s got a name. People talk … They’re not very uppity. My mix of people is really very unique: single, married, black, white, Hispanic, kids, teenagers; here, you see everybody. I think that’s what people like. Most of my customers are all from the neighborhood. I’m really having this celebration to thank the neighborhood for their support because I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Partlow also credits the cooperative business community for the success of St. Elmo’s and the neighborhood. “We probably have at least 15 businesses that are run and owned by women. We share.” she says. “My customers will go next door. They go across the street. And I send them there; we’re constantly growing our customer base instead of keeping it to ourselves.”
Partlow gazes out the window of her shop as she leans on the counter. She lifts her arm and points a finger, moving in a wide arc as she ticks off names, “Bonnie, Renee, Lily, Nelly, Lola, Pat…” The list goes on.
Then something outside catches Partlow’s eye. “Look across the street,” she says, pointing towards two women with distinctive paper cups sitting in lawn chairs displayed on the sidewalk in front of a boutique, Bonnie Greer and Company. “They’re buying my coffee here and sitting in those chairs. She’s not going to kick them out … to me that’s kind of unique.”
“I THINK I WAS probably here on opening day,” said Courtney Lombardi. “It’s the hub of Del Ray. It’s a good place to congregate.” But she adds that for many people, St. Elmo’s is more than a place to chat with neighbors. “It’s a place of comfort. Especially for mothers, on those long winter days when you’re stuck in your houses you know you can come to the coffee shop and meet people. You always see familiar faces. You always feel like you’ll meet someone you know.”
Customers are as likely to meet friends behind the counter as they are to meet them in line for coffee. St. Elmo’s employs four full-time and 12 part-time workers. “Most of the kids that work here, it’s their first job, and usually they say with me until college,” says Partlow. “And sometimes they come back after college.”
Nicole Thorpe has been working part-time at St. Elmo’s since October. She is getting her Masters in Education at Marymount University. She says she has always had a love of coffee shops, but had never worked in one before. She describes St. Elmo’s as “hands down one of the best coffee shops I’ve ever been in, [it has] a hang out feel without a bar feel.”
“We have regulars,” she adds, “Obviously. Tons of regulars.”
David Kosar is a regular. He is an amateur photographer, and his work hangs on one of St. Elmo’s walls. He makes his living as a government affairs consultant and says that he conducts much of his work, whether meeting with a client or working on his laptop, in St. Elmo’s. Beyond the social life it provides, St. Elmo’s serves as a meeting point for his “vocation and avocation,” his work and his art.
But Kosar said that when he bought his house 13 years ago he rarely came to Mount Vernon Avenue. “When Nora first opened there wasn’t a lot up here. For me there was no reason to come up the avenue. About six or seven years ago the place started taking off … I just fell in love with [St. Elmo’s], which is funny because I’m not a coffee drinker. I just hang out in a coffee shop.”