Lee Locklear feels right at home in Mt. Airy.
Lee Locklear feels right at home in Mt. Airy, one of the most liberal communities in the United States. Locklear, whose mother is a member of the Lumbee Native American tribe and whose father is African-American, embraces his heritage with pride – and uses his Avenues Café, located at the corner of Germantown and Mt. Airy Avenues in Mt. Airy, to celebrate and support his “proudly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ owned community.”
Every month he features local artists on his walls. The current show, which started just last week and will run throughout the month of October, features the work of people from Chestnut Hill’s Northwest Village Network, which is an intentional community of older adults – open to anyone – who help one another live active, meaningful lives as they age.
He also hosts occasional local food and clothing vendor events, jazz nights, private parties, birthday parties, anniversary dinners, events like “Coffee with State Rep. Chris Rabb” (who has an office one block away), and art sales near the end of each month. And on the first and second Saturday of each month, there is a “pay what you can” fresh produce farmers market from 6 to 9 p.m.
“We welcome all with open arms,” he said.
Locklear’s approach appears to be working. The cafe has a regular rotation of patrons and reviews on social media describe the spot as “chill cafe vibes” and a “really cute date spot where visitors can play board and card games while enjoying their coffee and sandwiches.”
Locklear said he thinks of the cafe as being part of a historical continuum because the intersection of Germantown and Mt. Airy Avenues was once a long Lenni Lenape Native American trail that ran from the Delaware River to the Perkiomen Creek, and “half of our staff are Indigenous people.”
Owning an urban cafe was the last thing on Locklear’s mind when he was growing up on a 150-acre family tobacco farm in Saint Pauls, North Carolina.
“We had cows, chickens, pigs and goats,” he said. “I was in charge of making sure the animals got fed. The biddies (baby chickens) were my special area of skill.”
But Locklear wanted to see how the other half lives, so he took off for Canisius College, a private Jesuit school in Buffalo, New York, which offered him “a generous aid package that recognized my unique background.”
He flourished in Buffalo, earning a BA in psychology, a BA in business marketing and an MBA. He went on to work in public relations for the Buffalo Sabres professional ice hockey team, as a canvasser for a political campaign and as a coordinator with 43 North, a company that ran a Shark Tank-like program designed to keep high-growth companies in Buffalo. Each winning business got a $1 million prize.
Locklear came to Philadelphia in 2019 after being recruited to be an events planner for NaturAll, a hair care and beauty products firm based in North Philadelphia. However, when the pandemic exploded, “Seventy percent of the workforce was laid off, even the co-founder.”
He started waiting tables at Tomo, a popular sushi restaurant in Center City.
“But then I was looking on a small business website one day, and I came across this vacant place in Mt. Airy looking for a new tenant,” he said. He had stumbled upon a storefront that had previously been Tata Café, owned by Bledar Istrefi, the chef and owner of Trattoria Moma, an Italian BYOB at 7131 Germantown Ave.
When Locklear took over the property and opened Avenues Café in April 2021, it quickly became a neighborhood staple, a sort of community center with art shows, workshops for building terrariums and teaching “spoken word.” Its long, spectacular table made by a wood carver became an ideal spot for casual, inexpensive first dates, themed weekend brunches, and more than 150 board games – including Monopoly, Taboo, Scythe, Ticket to Ride, and Scrabble.
“Or people just can come here to cry about their day,” Locklear said. “One lady recently came in and said, 'Thank you for being here. My boss died today.'”
And all these years later, it also gives him a reason to revisit his roots on the farm.
“I have a garden in South Philly where I grow corn, tomatoes and okra. I don't trust the dirt though, so I grow them in five-gallon tubs. I am trying to bring the country into the city,” Locklear said with a smile.
For more information, visit avenuescafe.co. There is no phone number on it. “We don't need it,” said Locklear. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org