Coffee house jazzes up Aycock historical district

by Daniel Bayer

Residents of the Aycock Historical District and points east no longer have to go downtown for conversation, coffee and entertainment thanks to the aptly-named Coffee at the Summit, a new gathering spot at the corner of Summit Avenue and Yanceyville Street, the neighborhood’s epicenter.

“This was just a vision,” says Stan Montgomery, who opened Coffee at the Summit in January. “I’m not a huge coffee connoisseur, but I think it has several advantages to it. I was open to all different blends of coffee, all different styles.”

Before opening the coffee shop in the yellow house with the wrap-around porch, Montgomery had spent 20 years in the real estate business, dealing with commercial and residential property. His brokerage office is on the second floor.

“People are still trying to associate us with a coffee shop because we’re not a typical storefront,” says Montgomery. “It’s a real coffee house.” The strip of Summit Avenue that the business sits on is known more for doctors’ and lawyers’ offices than retail establishments, and it’s hard to pick out the shop from several other well-maintained properties, despite the neon “open” sign in the window.

“We could probably do a better job with the signage, but we’re in a historical district,” says Montgomery.

The shop, with its ornate woodwork, baby grand piano and piped-in jazz, certainly projects a different vibe than the downtown hipster-oriented Green Bean. A large part of that is due to the location of the neighborhood on what’s traditionally been the dividing line between black Greensboro and white Greensboro, with a revitalized (some would say gentrified) downtown on the other side of Murrow Boulevard and with NC A&T University only two blocks to the south.

“I’ve had a couple of people say this to me, that in the midst of the racial things that are happening in Greensboro, it’s good to know that there’s a spot where black and white can go together and meet and have a good time,” says Montgomery. “This seems to be the place where we can do that, and I’ve heard that from black and white, which makes me feel good. We’ve always said, ‘Once you come in here, it’s a whole different atmosphere.'”

The coffee house has also provided a needed morale boost to those worried about the future of the neighborhood, one of Greensboro’s most economically as well as racially diverse, where restored turn-of-the-20th-century homes sit next to single-story brick apartment buildings on many of the tree-shaded streets. When the Greensboro Bats changed their name and moved from the historic War Memorial Stadium on Yanceyville Street to a shiny new home on the other side of downtown – Greensboro’s equivalent of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, to hear some residents tell it – many in the district saw it as an ominous sign that government and private investment in the area could dry up, with the kind of negative results seen in other once-thriving neighborhoods in the city.

“They’ve been very, very supportive,” says Montgomery of local residents. “They’re very passionate about their neighborhood. I kept them in the loop from the start and let them know what was going on because I really wanted their support. I really wanted to make it a true neighborhood coffee shop.”

He also hopes that Coffee at the Summit will become a respected venue for jazz musicians in Greensboro and elsewhere.

“It’s picking up,” says Montgomery. “It would be nice to turn it into a true jazz café. We know the demand is there and the desire is there. Whether the people will come, I don’t know.”

Both desire and demand seem to be in evidence on a recent Wednesday night, as the Larry Draughn Quartet plays its weekly gig. Older patrons sit and drink coffee while several musicians wait for a chance to play in the interval between the group’s sets. One young man holds a cassette recorder, avidly documenting the band’s performance.

“We’re trying to make it a new place to play,” says Len Grissett, the group’s trumpet player. “There aren’t many places around here that have jam sessions and play jazz, so we’re trying to get it established.”

Grissett says that musicians from as far away as Raleigh and Durham have come out for the Wednesday night sessions.

Montgomery hints that in the future there may be musicians coming from even farther away.

“We’d like for this to be a place where we can get major jazz artists to come through,” says Montgomery. “Greensboro has a lot of talent, but we’d like for it to be a place where the big names will come.”

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