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Strange Brew Coffee: A Community Shop That Couldn’t Survive.

March 17, 2012

Text and image by Yotam Dror.

Ed Golden sits alone in Strange Brew Coffee, typing away on his laptop. When a visitor enters the shop, he explains that the owner will be right back. “I don’t work here,” he says. “I’m just a customer.”

Then, co-owner Bobby Dombroski stumbles in, juggling his bike in one hand and a tripod in the other. He’s helping Golden make a video about interesting things in Philadelphia. Because the customers at the small shop in Pennsport are more than just customers.

After spending a few years in New York, Dombroski returned to his South Philly roots and sold the idea of a neighborhood café and music venue to his old friend, John Farrell.

“When I saw Bobby’s vision,” says Farrell. “I knew I would be into it.”

After about a year of planning, they opened Strange Brew in May 2011. Since opening, the café has hosted musical performances every Friday.

“The music has been here from the beginning,” says Farrell. “It was not an afterthought to involve it into the café.”

The size of the venue may seem insignificant – the seating area is perhaps a dozen, with standing room for more. However, those who perform enjoy the intimacy.

“I really like how we’re sitting in a living room,” explains Dombroski’s girlfriend, Karley Cohen. “There’s no pressure for the musicians.”

Cohen was Strange Brew’s first performer and is now in charge of booking the Friday night shows. She connects to artists on Facebook and ReverbNation. The café is booked through the summer. They are contemplating adding another night of shows and an open mic night.

“Bring a couple friends,” Dombroski says. “They all can perform. It’s a good starting point, a place to get comfortable in front of a crowd.”

Surrounded by auto garages and abandoned properties, Strange Brew seems a little out of place. The strip is better known for plumed, sequined and frequently drunk Mummers.

“Some people who live here all their lives don’t like change,” explains Dombroski’s mother, Madeline Dombroski. “I don’t see the negative. People are moving in with so many walks of life – gardening, biking, music. And they’re open to different things.“

Dombroski notes that he’s invited neighbors to patronize the shop. He wants the shop to be a place where everyone – new and old – can talk.

“It’s important to have a say in what that change is going to be,” he says.

All the decorations hanging in the coffeehouse are by local artists. The mugs are from thrift stores and family donations. The brownies are from Cake and the Beanstalk, near 11th and Locust streets. The coffee beans comes from Philly Fair Trade. Dombroski mentions this is the only café in the city that solely French -presses their brew.

Dombroski, who grew up nearby at 2nd and Hoffman,  used to visit this location as a child. An old Jewish couple, Gil and Ethel, owned a deli where children, including Dombroski, frequently came for sweets.

The tradition continues at Strange Brew. Candy is still dished out.

“Kids may be my best customers,” Dombroski says with a laugh.

He makes it a point to get to know everyone he encounters, especially the mailman. “I like to meet them,” says Bobby as the postman leaves the shop. “I’m going to see him every day.”

Editor’s Note: Strange Brew recently closed for business. Bobby Dombroski, however, is still peddling coffee as a wholesaler.

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