Day 291: The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand

The Awesome Mitten - The Sparrows
Photo courtesy of James Fry

As soon as you step inside The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand, you can tell it’s not a typical coffee shop. Clear jars of loose tea leaves and local artisans’ work line the barista’s countertop–across from which sits an entire wall of magazines for sale. The air is warm, infused with the rich smell of coffee beans. With each step, the floor creaks, and every table and chair totters on the worn wood.

The homey vibe, claims Owner Lori Slager, is very deliberate.

“We want people to feel comfortable here,” she says.

Customer comfort is a notable aspect of The Sparrows–when most patrons enter the shop, they stay for several hours. Slager tells a story about a regular, Dave, who left dents in the floor, because he would tip his chair back on two legs.

“Whenever something goes wrong, we like to that joke it’s Dave’s ghost,” says Slager.

The Sparrows opened on November 16, 2007, and it has been a favorite Eastown hangout ever since. Slager and her team all came from similar backgrounds in art or literature–Slager has a degree in Art Education–elements which were important, from the beginning.

Originally, The Sparrows was named Stray Dog Cafe, after the establishment of the same name, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Stray Dog Cafe was very popular in the early 20th century with famous writers and poets. Slager says she name changed because it was too similar to another Michigan eatery. “The Sparrows” originated from a print she was given, of chickadees.

“I thought [The Sparrows] sounded more like a hideout, like ‘The Boondocks’,” laughs Slager.

The Awesome Mitten - The Sparrows
Photo courtesy of James Fry

Literature’s influence is still evident in today’s shop. Specialty drinks are named after literary characters–the Raskolnikov, a Caramel and Caribbean Rum latte, and The Escapist, an Irish Cream and Butterscotch latte, for example. Slager also sells a selection of over 75 magazines: Grand Rapids rags, like on-the-town and Revue, as well as national titles, Juxtapoz, Gastronomica, and Bitch.

Slager’s art background also contributes to the The Sparrow’s appeal. Every two to three months, the shop’s artwork changes. Today, the colorful tiki art of local artist, Anthony Carpenter graces The Sparrow’s walls, or as one of his paintings calls it, “Sparrowdise.”

The exhibitions are thanks to Sarah Scott, The Sparrows’ curator, who also works as the Arts Coordinator for Heartside Gallery, on Division.

“[The Sparrows] doubles as a second gallery for Heartside,” says Slager.

On top of showcasing local art and literature, the shop also vends Michigan products. Off the top of her head, Slager listed 13: Mary Ann’s Chocolates, MadCap Coffee, Wednesday Evening Cookies, MOO-ville Creamery, Great Lakes Tea and Spice, and Nantucket Baking Company, to name only a few.

Supporting local business is very important to Slager and her staff of five employees. Monica Willits has been with the business since it started, and Dustin Tinney recently became part-owner. Willits works behind the counter and Tinney often runs on pastry deliveries, but it’s all a team effort.

“We have a really welcoming, nice staff,” says Willits. “That works in conjunction with the atmosphere.”

“We’re very careful about hiring friendly, quirky people,” echoes Slager. “That’s what makes us so ‘awesome’.”

The Awesome Mitten - The Sparrows
Photo courtesy of James Fry

The next time you’re wandering down Wealthy Street–or get a hankering for a well-read cup of coffee–head into The Sparrows. They’d love to see you.

The Sparrows is located at 1035 Wealthy Street SE, Grand Rapids. Check out the Facebook page, for all the latest updates.

-Meghan McAfee, Managing Content Editor

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The Awesome Mitten was born when I moved back to Michigan from Nashville, TN in September 2010. Almost immediately, I became frustrated. I couldn’t figure out why there weren’t more Michigan residents singing our states praises! I was so irritated, I wrote a Letter to the Editor. Three weeks later, I had started a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a landing page for the website, determined to do something to make Michigan residents aware of all the cool things going on in their own state. Email me: alex@awesomemitten.com