From May to October, the Greater Audubon Business Association (GABA) will host a series of themed block parties on West Merchant Street on the third Friday of the month.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 3, 2022
For the past half-decade, the tiny business district at the heart of Audubon has been quietly undergoing a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it renaissance.
The West Merchant Street neighborhood has long thrived on the economic activity generated by professional services, from salons and dentists to accountants, printers, and engineers.
For years, the long-tenured Desserts by Design has provided birthday cakes and treats for every holiday on the calendar, while neighborhood pizza shops like Antonino’s still hold a special place in the hearts of generations of Audubon High School graduates.
But the lingering after-effects of the economic downturn that hit the country in the early 2000s took a number of small businesses with it, and while some communities with Main Street shopping districts were able to rebound in its wake, Merchant Street was slower to hit its stride.
In 2017, when Aaron Clark opened the doors of Smoke BBQ at the corner of West Merchant and East Atlantic Avenues, he was one of the first new food-based businesses to join the block in years.
By 2020, Smoke was joined by Brennah Lambert’s Lesbiveggies, Cousin’s Deli took over the popular Merchant’s Deli under Anthony Brancaccio, and Red, White and Brew was settling into the historic Audubon National Bank building.
Two years after that, Philadelphia chef Dane DeMarco added BurgerTime to the block, Lou Sarku had expanded the footprint of Angelo’s Pizza there, and John Gordon and Kate Powell were readying Brown Dog Cafe in the former Tree House coffee shop.
(Next up is a planned Dominican restaurant from Leo Driver, who has designs on a summer opening in the former dance studio on the block.)
Together, the business owners on Merchant Street are working to leverage that healthy infusion of new blood and revived interest to reorganize under the banner of the Greater Audubon Business Association (GABA).
Although GABA was formally established years ago, the entity had languished along with the overall fortunes of the district.
Its current roster of businesses is working to build community by restoring a calendar of community events, starting with six themed block parties on the third Fridays of the month, from May to October 2022.
With live music from rotating groups of local musicians, alcoholic beverages for adults, and planned activities for children, organizers say GABA Third Fridays will offer opportunities for friends to gather, neighbors to meet, and visitors to discover all that Merchant Street has to offer.
‘We’re happy to raise our kids here’
DeMarco, who opened BurgerTime after settling in the borough with their wife last year, said the Third Friday block parties will offer a chance for people who’ve sidelined their social interactions during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to connect with one another and the new businesses on the block.
“I’m looking forward to bringing the neighborhood together with street activities, good food, and good music, so that everyone new and old to Audubon can get to know their neighbors and their neighborhood,” DeMarco said.
As the couple prepares to welcome a child this summer, they’re looking forward to seeing the GABA calendar of events expand along with opportunities for people to gather on Merchant Street.
“One of the reasons we chose Audubon was the sense of family and the values that the town represents,” DeMarco said. “We’re happy to raise our kids here.”
Gordon, who opened Brown Dog Café in the fall of 2021, said new businesses like his are excited about the prospect of community programming, not only to introduce themselves to the neighborhood, but also to re-introduce some of the other shops on Merchant Street to new customers.
“Cousin’s, the brewery, Lesbiveggies—their first two years existed during COVID,” Gordon said. “Now we have one of everything [on the block], which never existed before.
“When I was in high school, the only reason to go to Merchant Street was Speedy Mart and Antonino’s [Pizza], which are great things, but there’s a lot more now,” he said.
“It’s only one block, but it packs a big punch.”
Gordon said the work GABA has done to coordinate a calendar of events—in addition to Third Fridays, Brown Dog will serve as a rally point for the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride this month—demonstrates its interest in connecting with the local community beyond “just setting up and selling goods and services.
“We all want to be ingrained in the town,” he said.
“It’s not something that we have to do, but we’re all passionate about it. It shows people that businesses in town are working for the town.
“We have all these towns that have all these great festivals,” Gordon said. “There’s no reason we can’t have that here.”
GABA President Jodi Shaw-Clark, whose salon, Splitting Hair, has operated on Merchant Street for 20 years, said the block has evolved throughout the decades she’s been in business.
With funds raised by a Special Improvement District (SID) tax on property owners, Merchant Street was beautified with brick work, planters, and pedestrian improvements that survived longer than the tax itself.
By the mid-2010s, local business owners were lobbying the borough government to repeal the tax, which helped ease their financial struggles, but also left GABA without the makings of a budget.
Until the group adopts a more formal financial structure, the new crop of business owners is paying for events out of pocket and with community contributions. Shaw-Clark and her neighbors worked to revive Third Friday block parties with limited resources last year; with additional members chipping in this year, she expects the events to benefit from the additional support.
“In 2022, GABA is moving forward with more innovative ideas,” she said.
“I think we have great people with great ideas who are willing to go in and do the work.
“Once this kicks off, you’ll see a lot of the businesses involved.”
Shaw-Clark said she’d love to help grow the organization beyond its current membership to include business neighbors from farther down Atlantic Avenue, the White Horse Pike, and Nicholson Road, as well as future newcomers to the block.
“I think it’s very exciting to be an old and new business in Audubon,” she said.
“Audubon is definitely up and coming,” Shaw-Clark said.
“Haddonfield and Collingswood have out-priced themselves, and people are coming this way and looking at Audubon and Haddon Heights and Oaklyn.”
Chris Bauman, owner and brewer at Red White & Brew Beer Company, said GABA is working not just to showcase the Merchant Street business district, but to create an environment in which other neighborhood groups can gather and create community events, too.
“GABA’s definitely still a newer group that was getting back together before COVID hit,” Bauman said. “It allows us to showcase what Audubon can be; what it’s growing into. I’d like it to keep growing, and have more businesses in the borough join up so we can keep doing great things.
“We’ve put a lot of energy into getting this started again,” he said. “We have a bigger group, more bodies, more energy this year.”
Although it comprises Audubon-based businesses, GABA is focused on creating events that will appeal to a broad cross-section of guests from communities throughout the area, Bauman said.
Its calendar of theme-based block parties will invite people to come in costume, gather with their friends, and hopefully return to the neighborhood for future shopping trips.
“This is very much for the people of Audubon, but also for surrounding areas,” he said.
“We want our neighbors in other towns and boroughs to come enjoy us; people from Haddonfield, Collingswood, Oaklyn, Haddon Heights, Mt. Ephraim.
“That goes for the businesses themselves, too,” Bauman said.
“I’m hoping as more people come visit, they’ll learn that there’s something to come to, and that they can make little day trips to.”
Third Friday block parties kick off May 20 with the theme “Dino Park.” Rowan University paleontologist Kenneth Lacovera will be in attendance, with live music, vendors, and activities for kids. Costumes are encouraged.
For more information about GABA, visit the group Facebook page or follow @gaba_gram on Instagram.
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