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28th and Johnson: an urban village in the sweet spot between "too quiet" and "no place to park"

At its best, a city neighborhood feels and functions like a small town Main Street--where you can jam a baseball cap over your Saturday morning hair and stroll around the corner to order a cup of coffee from a barista who knows your name. The merchants are your neighbors and, if you're lucky, you might get an earful of local gossip along with your change.  

But the urban village variables need to be balanced just right. If there are just a couple of intriguing storefronts amid a sea of "Space for Lease" signs, there's seldom enough traffic for businesses to survive. On the other end of the spectrum, if your hip and heralded shops and restaurants attract an overabundance of outsiders, parking becomes unpleasantly competitive. Suddenly there's a forty-five-minute wait for brunch.

Between those two extremes, the 2800 block of Johnson Street NE in Minneapolis has achieved a kind of sweet spot. For the last several years, customers from across the Cities have been flocking to destination businesses, like Sarah Jane's Bakery, with its award-winning doughnuts; the bright, cheerful retro-chic of Rewind Vintage; and the late, much-lamented Pop! eatery. It's just enough extra traffic to help the loyal locals support all the merchants that make this block charming, lively and fun.

Creating a Scene

With its eye-popping Japanese fabrics and subversive cross-stitch patterns, Crafty Planet fits so perfectly into the Johnson Street ecosystem, you'd think it has been there all along. But this creative hotspot, which draws customers from as far away as Duluth and Rochester, is a relative newcomer. "We opened in 2003 on Lowry Street," recalls co-owner Trish Hoskins. "We wanted to be on Johnson Street but there weren't any sites open at the time. We moved to Johnson Street in 2008. And we've been very strong here. We feel like the neighboring businesses are a good fit, especially our next-door neighbor, Rewind. We share a lot of the same customer base."

 "We definitely have customers of all ages and all genders but I think that Dabble and Rewind and Crafty Planet all have a strong following among twenty- and thirty-somethings," she continues. "It's kind of a hipster scene, which you have in Northeast. And customers are really proud to shop local and support local business."

That support was especially welcome in 2008. "There were some challenges when we moved," Hoskins says. "The [35W] bridge was down and the economy was starting to come to a halt. It was difficult to get to Northeast from a lot of locations in the metro, especially from south Minneapolis. But people continued to find us."

The New Bambino on the Block

If you were trying to sell a house here in the Audubon neighborhood, you would be wise to extol its proximity to the rigatoni-with-butcher-shop-Bolognese at Amici. This affable, low-key Italian bistro, which occupies the space formerly occupied by Snap!, has endeared itself to the locals by delivering its specialty pizzas and comfort-food entrées to neighbors who can't break away from Netflix long enough to set foot in the softly lit, family-friendly dining room.

Proprietor Greg Pratt opened the business in March. "It's a great little community," says Greg's sister, Julie Asta, who has been pitching in to keep the front of the house humming. "Everybody's very connected and takes care of one another. The people in the businesses around here, as well as the people who live around here, very much support their local businesses. They're happy we're here and they really want us to make it."

Nota bene to those who haven't been to Amici recently: the city of Minneapolis finally came through with that long-awaited beer and wine license. Salut!

Not Your Mother's Gift Shop

Nordeasters who need a quick hostess gift or pick-me-up can duck into Dabble for a fragrant hunk of Zum Bar soap, a cheeky set of refrigerator magnets, some Tulablu soy candles or a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers from a cooler no larger than a kitchen fridge. The selection at this tiny, funky little gift shop is skillfully edited and lovingly curated by Jenni Horton and her sister, Jodi, for almost ten years.

Horton helps to cultivate the genial, supportive vibe of the block as the president of the Johnson Street Merchants Association. "Honestly, we are all really good friends," she says. "We've kind of grown up in the business together. At one time, probably about five years into Dabble, almost all of the business owners on our street were women. And so we started our own little support group. A lot of us have small children and we were going through the same things, having little businesses and little kids. We called ourselves The J Street Ladies and we would get together once a week and have a glass of wine and talk about things. It's changed a little because now there are more men. But we all are trying to work together for the same goal."

It's a goal that many of the business owners take personally. "I live four blocks away." says Horton. "A lot of us live in the neighborhood. The owner of Bare salon lives two blocks away. The owner of Amici lives a block away. We're invested in our own neighborhood so it means more."

It means more to Dabble's customers too. "We have a lot of neighborhood support, Horton says. "And even in times when we aren't doing really well, our neighborhood is right there for us."

Rebirth of a Coffee Shop

The love goes both ways. When the neighborhood's beloved Audubon Coffee closed, the sisters decided that the block couldn't be without a coffee shop. "My sister and I were both working there part-time. Dabble isn't a big money-roller. We call it our expensive hobby. So we worked at the coffee shop because we were good friends with [the owner]. When she closed, we thought, 'We can't not have coffee.' So we made it happen."

In the meantime, their neighbors were suffering from caffeine withdrawal. "People would yell at us from their cars as they drove by: 'Hurry up and get that place open!'" Jenni recalled. The Coffee Shop NE opened June 28 to warm reviews.

Even though the coffee has been restored, the neighborhood still has room for cream. The Johnson Street merchants are waiting to see if new owners will come along and make the Pop! space pop again.

Ellen Shaffer is a marketing and features writer who makes her home and headquarters in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of Saint Paul.

Photos, top to bottom:

Coffee Shop NE, a welcome newcomer to the block

Co-owner Trish Hoskins of hipster-crafter mecca Crafty Planet

Amici offers pizza and comforting Italian entrees in a design-y ambience.

Amici's Julie Asta: "People who live around here...really want us to make it."

Quirky Dabble has been a neighborhood fixture for a decade.

Jenni Horton of Dabble. With sister Jodi, she runs both the gift shop and brand-new Coffee Shop NE.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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