Where can you buy a well-loved book for three bucks, enjoy a bowl of oinkin’ apple mushroom soup under a tree, and rub shoulders with the next generation of artistic greats?
Well, only time will tell about the greats thing, but The Rabbit and the Dragonfly’s creative community space and café on North Market Street in Lancaster pretty much guarantees that eventually one of the fellows or ladies sitting at a table near you will make their artistic mark on the world much in the way that authors like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a host of other writers did.
That’s because the six partners of the new joint took inspiration for their combination coffee shop, used bookstore, and creative space from the Inklings, a literary group of friends (including the aforementioned august authors) who met in a pub in the 1930s and ‘40s to discuss their work, offer critique and encouragement, and—of course—enjoy a pint.
Says partner Jason Zimmerman, “The more I read about them, the more I was inspired. There were a lot of great books that came out of that—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings. It was amazing to me to hear the genesis of those stories.”
So Zimmerman and his partners set out to create a unique space in Lancaster where community members can enjoy a coffee or sandwich, sample (or buy) one of many books from the packed shelves, chat with friends, chat with friendly strangers, meet up for artistic discussion a la the Inklings, doodle with the free art supplies at hand, enjoy an open mic performance, watch a Saturday morning movie… and the options just keep going from there. Says partner Dave Seyfried, “There’s a spark of something in everyone that appeals to creativity and wonder, and I want us to bring that out of people; just sitting together, talking, creating, and connecting on a deeper level with the community.”
It’s an ambitious idea, even for a town—not to toot our own horn, here—as vibrant as Lancaster; but it’s one that has gained a surprising amount of traction since the space opened on February 21. They’ve already had an open mic night, author signing, and movie screening, and people of all ages have come to check out the space, eat, read, write, and draw. “I love seeing everyone coming together and doing the things that the Inklings did with writing back then and expanding it to all the other different arts,” says Zimmerman.
Perhaps the success of the venture is less surprising, though, when you consider that all the partners are truly in it out of passion, and that kind of spirit is infectious. The café is currently open only on market days and is staffed by the partners and a few volunteers; all but one of the partners have other jobs.
“We started this thing on a shoestring budget,” says Zimmerman. “More people are coming around the idea than I thought would. People who really believe in the vision of this place.”
Zimmerman knew next to nothing about business before opening the café, but has looked to his partners for support. “[Dr. David Eisenberg] brings with him the wisdom of his years, and he’s very business savvy, a kind of a fatherly person on our team,” says Zimmerman of one of the six partners. Laurie Keener, another partner, he describes as “not afraid of numbers.”
Seyfried, who has years of experience teaching art to kids in his summer camp “craft shack,” is dedicated to the artistic aspects of the café. Partner Melissa Garland spends her time whipping up the tasty soups and sandwiches. And rounding out the team is Stephanie Todoroff, barista and pagemaster— a moniker that wasn’t self-applied, but is likely to stick. She is the one who writes the price—almost always $3 or less—in pencil inside each of the varied used books for sale on the café’s shelves, books acquired mostly through donation with some specially chosen items added to the mix. “It’s two passions of mine: coffee and books. And that’s what I do here,” says Todoroff.
Stepping into the space itself feels a bit like entering a nerd paradise—there’s no denying it, just like there’s no denying I swooned a bit—but even if fantasy stories per se aren’t your thing, you’ll still feel welcomed and inspired. The references to specific popular Inklings’ works—like a stunning Narnia painting in a clever wardrobe-and-snow setup, and a map of Middle Earth—don’t overpower the general cozy and quirky feel of the space, but add to it. 2D paintings and 3D sculptures introduce visual interest to warm brown walls and wood accents wherever there’s not a full bookshelf. There’s even a corner of the room that bears an uncanny (intentional) resemblance to the private room in the Oxford pub that was the Inklings’ preferred hangout, complete with a fireplace and wall sconces.
You can’t sit in that corner and order a beer like you could at the original pub, but there’s plenty on offer to make your taste buds forget about alcohol. There are Appalachian Brewing Company craft sodas, a full complement of espresso drinks using Square One coffee, and loose-leaf teas from the Herb Shop at market. Sit and sip one of these at a leisurely pace while you nibble on a bagel or one of the divertingly-named sandwiches, like the Reepicheep (a grilled cheese), the Gimli (roast beef), the Mike D (ham and swiss), or the Hobbit’s Garden (homemade pesto, tomato, and mozzarella on Ric’s Bread ciabatta).
“We want to add more things, like British and Welsh-inspired dishes, to keep with the theme and area that the Inklings were in,” says Garland; so items like meat pasties might be available soon. There is also the soup of the day, which is constantly changing. “I’ll look at what we have in the back and see what else we can get to add to that, and I go from there,” says Garland. “I like that I have the freedom to experiment.”
Says Zimmerman, “The same concept we have when it comes to our art and our writing and our music, where we’re constantly creating new things, flows over into our kitchen.” Garland adds, “Totally! That’s my art. I do other art too, but you eat with your eyes first. It’s gotta look good before it tastes good.”
Whatever your artistic inclinations or lack thereof, and whatever types of worlds you like to escape to in books, and whether you prefer the feel of paper or the glow of your e-reader (let’s not be purists here), you’ll enjoy the sense of community and the tasty snacks found at the Rabbit and the Dragonfly. Be sure to check their website or Facebook page for the next inspiring performance, screening, or lunch special they’re featuring; or just pop in on your way back from market one morning to see what’s brewing.
• Place Marie Mall, 51 N. Market St., Lancaster
• Tuesday, Friday & Saturday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.