There’s only one place in Columbia where you can get a RumpleSTOUTskin beer; only one coffee shop with a cavernous, concert-hosting basement; only one breezeway patio where you can sip a latte, nibble a sandwich, fire up a laptop and truly shut out the noise of Gervais Street traffic.
There’s no other place in downtown Columbia like the City Market alleyway, an intimate micro-village tucked into the heart of the Vista but set apart by its design and atmosphere.
Not everyone knows how to get there – it’s an alley, after all. But this nook’s low-key vibe is something that other, less-developed spots around the Vista might hope to have, too, as the city fills in.
“All the pieces of the puzzle are there for a walkable, one-stop venue,” said Scott Garvin, the local architect and developer who took on the City Market project two years ago, renovating existing buildings and adding onto others. “You can go to dinner, you can get a drink, get a cup of coffee and listen to music and hang out there for two or three hours.”
All the pieces of the puzzle are there for a walkable, one-stop venue.
Garvin’s alley exudes the Vista’s past, and it illuminates the Vista’s future. Built of three restored Reconstruction-era train warehouses and most recently occupied by antique malls, City Market is now well-positioned to become the center of the Vista as development moves west toward the Congaree River.
“We have this untapped resource down here of the river. ... It just makes sense that the Vista’s hub would just kind of naturally move down toward the river,” said Chris Baldwin, owner of the West Coast-style Twisted Spur restaurant and brewery. “Hopefully, we’re going to be right in the middle of it.”
College students, businesspeople and retirees filled a half-dozen tables on the patio between Newk’s Eatery and the Wired Goat coffee shop on a recent, unseasonably warm afternoon. A bride posed for portraits along the picturesque brick-and-plaster wall outside Grill Marks burger restaurant.
A pharmacy rep sipped happy-hour wine at the Twisted Spur bar before an early-evening hair appointment. A group of young nurses split an appetizer at a nearby booth and made plans for future travels.
A pair of chic, one-bedroom apartments and a party-and-event space round out the City Market nook. Oh, and the alley has public art, too: A sculpture by Columbia artist Mike Williams sits in front of the Twisted Spur.
As downtown grows with more residents, more businesses and more activity, Garvin envisions the the alley becoming a true destination within the Vista.
Those who make City Market their destination will find an enclave where almost every element speaks to them of the Vista’s way-back story: Railroad tracks subtly inlaid in brick pavers. Heart-of-pine floors laid with wood stripped from the 19th-century buildings themselves. A chink in the top of a brick archway inside an apartment gushing with character.
“We want to make sure we’re always remembering where we came from but looking into the future,” said Meredith Atkinson, director of the Vista Guild merchants’ association. The new life at City Market, she said, is “preserving the unique characteristics” of the Vista that set it apart from other districts and other cities.
The bustle of the Vista dies out as you enter the brick alleyway. It’s quiet. It’s friendly.
“It’s just a transformation, and it’s just so beautiful,” said Nelda Canada, who sat on the porch outside Wired Goat with her husband, Dan, on a warm afternoon last week.
The retirees were first-time visitors to the coffee shop, drawn to it by a positive online review. They sat drinking in the quiet sunshine and a turmeric and saffron latte. “We’re glad we were able to come over here before all the hipsters come out in the evening,” Nelda said.
In 10 years, the City Market will become kind of an icon in the Vista.
Inside, 18-year-old ministry student Auston Ormond showed his visiting parents to the basement of his favorite coffee shop, while a trio of giggling University of South Carolina students filled a table with their laptops and textbooks.
Juniors and roommates at USC, Julianna Traurig, Valerie Barthel and Amanda Burke chose Wired Goat as their getaway after going stir-crazy in their apartment.
“It has a hipster vibe without all the hipsters,” Burke said.
“Homey” is the feeling, and varied is the crowd, Wired Goat owner Steven Grigsby said.
“Everyone has in their mind an image of their ‘Central Perk,’” Grigsby said, alluding to the famed “Friends” cafe. “It’s the quintessential coffee shop that’s the anti-Starbucks.”
The Wired Goat can be tricky to locate, tucked behind the street front with minimal signage. And that’s part of its charm, Grigsby believes. “It’s almost a prized possession, to be someone who knows where the Goat is,” he said.
If Garvin has his way, the cat – er, goat – will be out of the bag soon enough.
His goal this year is to bring semi-regular entertainment to the alley – shut it down to cars, set up a stage, serve food and drinks from the surrounding businesses. Twisted Spur’s Baldwin would like to host a beer fest or two with all the outdoor trappings.
Entertainment and special events can only brighten the alley’s star, Garvin believes.
“If we add that to the mix, it’s just going to be a very unique spot,” Garvin said.
“It’s almost like if you go to big cities, you see this all over the place. It’s a walk-to destination.”
In a matter of time, Garvin’s alley will buzz with people around the clock, the developer predicts.
“In 10 years, the City Market will become kind of an icon in the Vista,” Baldwin said. “If you know about it, when you come and visit the Vista, you’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to go by and see the City Market.’”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.