Outside The Coffee House in Old Town Henderson, owner Don Watkins sits at a table on the sidewalk patio, smoking a cigarette and chatting with a customer. It’s a warm autumn weekday, and on any other downtown Main Street, the sidewalks would likely be filled with people making their way to shops, restaurants and offices. But here on Water Street, The Coffee House (117 Water Street, 752- 3199) is the only sign of life on the otherwise dead street. When Watkins walks in, he chats with a few older locals about topics of the day, including — perhaps ironically — First Friday in downtown Las Vegas. It’s ironic because this coffee shop, which Watkins hopes to turn into a hub for arts and culture in downtown Henderson, is on a street rife with vacant storefronts and boarded-up windows. Add to that the fact that Watkins took over the shop from a former owner who tried to make a go of slinging coffee. Watkins, a concrete contractor by trade, raised $20,000 to get things up and running. What will make a difference this time?
“The art, the music and the coffee. I think I’ve got the best coffee in town,” he says. “That’s what makes a place work — when you come in, you always get consistently good coffee.”
Downtown Las Vegas seems to be on an effortless winning streak. Entrepreneurs build the bars, cafés and hangouts, and the urbanites come. It’s a decidedly different story in downtown Henderson, which serves as a reminder that not everywhere in Southern Nevada is urban pioneering such a sure thing.
But Watkins is making some promising moves. While his coffee is tasty (the beans are Lavazza and the syrups are Monin), it’s more likely the other two facets of that trifecta responsible for The Coffee House’s growing success. From the start, Watkins has aggressively recruited local artists not only to fill the red walls in his cozy space, but to also do live painting in the shop. The venue hosts open-mic nights on Wednesdays and Fridays, poetry on Tuesdays, a United States Chess Federation-certified chess club meeting on Mondays, and even the occasional acting class during the day. After dark, The Coffee House’s bohemian atmosphere comes out in full force, table lamps and track lights accenting the crimson walls and vintage furniture, old hippies, young punks and middle-aged writers comfortably commingling. (If clove smoke started filling the room, you’d swear you were on Maryland Parkway circa 1996.)
Based on the lack of coffee spotted in people’s hands at a recent Wednesday night jam session, however, nightly entertainment won’t pay the bills. Water Street needs more vital businesses surrounding The Coffee House for it to survive. Watkins says he’d like to see more art in Old Town, or even just “shops that have art.” He mentions a few friends who have shown interest in opening a restaurant or maybe a crystals store down there. But for now, despite the rash of empty storefronts and boarded-up windows, Watkins remains optimistic.
“I know the location sucks,” he says, “but with the art, music and coffee, people will come.”