When the PA SHPO asked me to write a blog entry about what place I am most looking forward to reconnecting with after we settle into the Lehigh Valley’s “new normal,” I thought about the recent conversation I had with my 12-year old son.
We were driving through downtown Emmaus (sometimes spelled Emaus), a few blocks from our house. The triangle with the fountain would normally be teeming with activity on any other sunny Saturday afternoon. That day, it was quiet.
He asked me what our beloved little borough would look like once the pandemic is over. As we passed the closed shops and restaurants and empty streets, I recognized the crux of his question: will our downtown survive?
As a mom, as an optimist, I told him the answer I wanted to be true, the one I wanted him to hear. Yes, the town will bounce back. I reassured us both that small businesses have the flexibility to find creative ways to serve customers in times like this.
Restaurants get creative
One of Emmaus’ draws is its walkable downtown with restaurants, shops, and services occupying historic buildings along the main street and surrounding blocks.
When foot traffic drawing in customers slowed down, restaurants adjusted to customer needs. Switchback Pizza not only sells their frozen pizzas but partners with local farms to offer pantry items out of the former Philadelphia & Reading Railroad passenger station.
Baked expanded their Facebook presence to inform patrons what is available for curbside pick-up each day. Their shop is in an American Foursquare that coincidently also housed a bakery in 1911.
I’ll have to wait awhile before I sit on their deep front porch after the Farmers Market, watching people go by. When the time comes, I’ll appreciate the experience more than ever.
South Mountain Cycle and Cafe recently moved into a vacant late-1920s building on our main street originally built for the local Order of the Owls chapter, a secret fraternal organization formed in 1904 Missouri.
Emmaus Run Inn, specializing in runners’ footwear, is located next door in the first floor of a former home converted into commercial space in the latter half of the 20th century.
Both maintain a steady presence on social media, offer free local delivery and easy returns, and compensate for the lack of in-store shopping with online deals.
The local bookstore
Another business that made the most of social media during the pandemic is Let’s Play Books.
They are also in the heart of downtown in an uncharacteristically narrow building tucked in between the stereotypical ornate-dwelling-turned funeral home and a stately brick Victorian dwelling that now houses a dentist’s office and apartments.
It’s that building on the block that looks petite from the outside, but once inside, you find room after delightful room filled with nooks perfect for settling in and getting lost in a book’s other world.
Winding up and up the slight staircases, you pass a chess board, a wooden train set and platform 9 ¾, and finally at the top of the stairs, you reach the cattic, where the two bookshop felines bask in the sun, inviting you to join them in a quiet afternoon of reading.
The 1911 and 1922 Sanborn Insurance Maps for Emmaus indicate that jewelry was sold here before it was converted back to a dwelling by 1930. In the last twelve years, its uses ranged from a jewelry shop (again) to a learning and behavioral center to a vacant storefront.
I am confident Let’s Play Books is here to stay. After the pandemic, they’ll be back, stronger than ever. During this downtime, they engaged their patrons through Zoom calls with authors, chronicles of their mascots, online school book fairs, a hotline to call for book recommendations, and a lot more. Let’s Play Books is proof that when a small business invests in their community, the community returns embraces.
Last but certainly not least, is the Emmaus Theater.
They are the epitome of our borough. The recent restoration of the exterior is a nod to its 1920 construction date but very much keeps up with the times, like a majority Emmaus’ buildings.
It is a place that encourages a sense of togetherness. Buy tickets at the exterior booth and mill about until the show starts, talking with friends you didn’t expect to meet.
The interior maintains that community feeling. It’s one screen in one room. The snack bar is in the screening room. The lavatories are accessed through doors on the rear wall of the screening room. Your experience in the theater is shared with the other patrons yet doesn’t feel cramped. You all lean in together when the train loudly goes by, knowing when you bought the ticket, you’d collectively miss a few minutes of dialog.
It doesn’t get more Emmaus than that.
The owners have kept the theater relevant in the last few years by offering BYO theme nights – comedians, cult classics, film competitions. They offer a free showing of The Polar Express during the Old Fashion Christmas celebration, sponsored by a downtown business, collecting canned goods for the local food pantry.
Like Let’s Play Books, they know how to engage their community. While the theater remains closed during the pandemic, they flexed and adjusted, partnering with a streaming service to offer quirky movies to watch from home. In a brilliant move to keep the theater on people’s minds, they changed movie titles to fit the pandemic.
Their marquee even made it to the May issue of Vanity Fair.
If Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of American Cities ingredients for a vibrant city – mixed uses, short blocks, buildings of varying age and condition, and a dense population – were correct, then my son (and I) should have no worries about Emmaus’ survival of the economic cost of a pandemic.
The borough has survived world wars, the Great Depression, industry leaving and coming back. For 270+ years, it has evolved and adapted with the changes of its community.
Today’s society puts a premium on vital downtowns; resources are available to help places like Emmaus remain relevant and thrive.
I believe in the answer I told my son. It may look different on the other side, but Emmaus will bounce back. I hope to see you all at the triangle, at the movies, grabbing a bite to eat, or just enjoying a stroll through Emmaus’ historic downtown.
This week’s guest author is Kristina Lammi Thompson. Kris is a Cultural Resources Specialist for PennDOT’s District 5 and an Above-Ground Cultural Resources Supervisor with PennDOT’s Bureau of Project Delivery.