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Elba’s Just Folk Provides Much More than Lunch

The people of Elba are a hardworking breed.  The small streets are continuously bustling throughout the morning hours and early afternoon.  Smiling faces and friendly horn honks greet you at every corner.  Everyone seems to be on the same page regardless of the weather or which team lost to which the night before.

Everyone operates on an axis centered on the reverberating gongs of the courthouse clock tower.  7 a.m.: rise and shine.  8 a.m.: the shift begins.  10 a.m.: time for a break.  Noon: lunch at Just Folk. 

The Just Folk coffee house and art center is the cornerstone for southern hospitality and the sure cure for an empty stomach. The coffee house was established as an extension for the services of Covenant Community church. 

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Covenant’s pastor, Mart Gray, in the coffee house for an enlightening discussion about the history and philosophy of this community gathering spot. 

“We acquired the building in 2007 and began renovations.  We had our first concert in 2008.  I think we opened the restaurant part in 2009—or 2010.”

The building that the coffee house now occupies was once a movie theater established as a “competitor” for the Elba theatre just across the street.  One company owned both theaters, but the second was built to scare off outside competition.

Just Folk first opened as a coffee shop and concert venue. But after the closing of downtown’s only eatery, Pearl’s Deli, the locals demanded that the coffee house start serving lunch. 

Among other things Just Folk serves as an ideal atmosphere for social engagement and networking.  “We opened this to give people a destination venue downtown on the square,” Gray said.  “There’s not a lot of places for people to connect with people, and we just want to give people a place to gather.” So far a job well done.

Matt Brunson, local attorney, is a prominent member of the famed “Coffee Club” here in Elba. The group meets at Just Folk every morning around 8 a.m.

"It’s a time for fellowship with other members of the community and talk to them and straighten out world affairs,” said Brunson.  “Everything from politics to football to old family lines.  Who died, who got married and…just different philosophies that you hear.”  Brunson has been a member since 1996, but the informal club has been in existence as early as the late 70s.

The Coffee Club just recently made Just Folk its new home.  Its members had previously met in the State Farm office a couple doors down until about a year ago and before that in the old Whitman’s drugs store across the street.

“The coffee house is great. It’s a great venue to meet,” said Brunson.  The Coffee Club has had a wide variety of members ranging from the county sheriff to the newspaper editor.  Currently there are only about half a dozen-or-so regular attendants, but they always welcome new faces with a smile and lots of hot coffee.

Just Folk is managed year round by volunteers—with an exception of one paid college student, Katie Johnson.   The coffee house is open for business from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

During the lunch hour, the welcoming space of this mocha mecca comes alive. Pat Johnson, a member of the Covenant Community Church, has been a volunteer manager of Just Folk for about four years.

Managing a successful business for free is almost unheard of, but she explains how and why she does it saying, “I just felt like this was God’s plan for me to do this.” 

Just Folk is a real slice of paradise indeed, but it isn’t all laughs and lattes.  Both the coffee house and the entire city of Elba will be facing a serious threat in about three to four years that is the focus of much discussion.

Upon the completion of the new bypass that will sweep past Elba, the local businesses could potentially suffer from less traffic coming through the downtown area. “It’s going to remove traffic from the town more-or-less like New Brockton,” Johnson said.

For those who aren’t familiar with New Brockton, it is a small town near Elba that was once a well-to-do little place until a bypass—much like the one Elba faces—came and cut traffic through the area.  “New Brockton is more-or-less closed because nobody goes through New Brockton.  That scares me.”

Despite others’ fear about the bypass, optimist Mart Gray is always seeing the glass half full.  “We’ve got the opportunity in the remaining time to establish the downtown area—particularly the square area—as an entertainment destination.  I think when the bypass is in place and most of this through traffic is taken out of downtown, it will be much more pedestrian friendly and lend itself to more opportunities.” 

Way to look at the bright side Mart!  However, the fears of Mrs. Johnson and other local business owners are reasonable in their fear that the bypass is a potential problem for this town.

But let’s not linger too long on the future. For now it’s best to keep the coffee kettle boiling and proceed confidently.  I personally believe this town is capable of achieving the impossible.  Have you ever spelled Elba backwards?         

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