Jim’s Lunch in Millville is an iconic downturn business with colorful characters that typifies the appeal of America’s main streets.
As Nichole Maul flips hamburgers at a front window of the 90-year-old, orange-seated eatery, she can watch people walking by on the city’s Main Street.
Jim’s Lunch is equally famous for its cheeseburgers with special sauce and for always closing from Memorial Day to Columbus Day — an unheard of four months through the summer — to give family members a break from working 90-hour weeks.
Jim Albertson, a regional folklorist, radio personality and Jim’s Lunch regular, last month recounted a long-ago story of a luncheonette that opened in the months when Jim’s was closed.
“It was doing great. Come Columbus Day, he opens up and there are no customers. He says to a cop walking by, ‘Was there a fire, or an accident? I don’t have any customers.’ The cop says, ‘Oh, you won’t have any customers for nine months. Jim’s Lunch opened today.’”
When Jim’s Lunch was founded, Millville’s fortunes were tied to an industry that transformed grains of sand into smooth glass — one that eventually became as fragile as its creations.
Now, post-industrial Millville is nearly 14 years into an effort to turn its six-block Glasstown Arts District into a business hub and cultural epicenter of art and music.
Buildings were torn down. New facades erected. Square-brick sidewalks installed. The Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts arose with galleries and studios, as special events brought after-hours music to street corners and shop floors.
And in September, the Levoy Theatre — once a silent film and movie house that closed in 1974 — reopened, with 1980s cover bands, Joan Osborne and Gin Blossoms among the performers.
“It has the basic elements of what could be a really thriving arts scene,” said Ivy Wilson, the 29-year-old owner of Ivy Chaya Art, who moved from New York’s Lower East Side last year to open her studio. “I don’t think the artists are making as many sales or as much, but the arts scene is a functioning, living, breathing organism. You just have to feed it.”
Yet the results of these efforts on business here are mixed, said some shop owners in the district, which runs along the artery of High Street. And there is still Cumberland County’s bleak economy, where the state-highest unemployment rate was 14.1 percent last year. Millville’s was 14.3 percent.
“I think the arts district has done a lot for the image of the downtown. But there’s been a big turnover of businesses. … The economy had a lot to do with it,” said Dale Wettstein, 70, owner of Steelman Photographic & Custom Framing, “A lot of the smaller businesses are art-related and part time.”
Wettstein has worked at the business since age 16, when it was a camera shop and full-service darkroom. He went into the Army as a photographer for a military intelligence unit in Vietnam, came home in August 1966 and back to Steelman’s.
“Been here ever since,” he said.
Another mainstay is the quirky Bogart’s Books & Cafe, a purple-and-red-painted shop and central gathering place.
The store is part indie coffee shop, part used-book store with a donation/discount system that builds its more than 140,000-book inventory into an eclectic mix of romance, nonfiction, westerns and others, floor manager Katelyn Phillips said.
There’s also its bathroom, painted for black lights.
“Our bathroom is slowly evolving into the coolest place in the store,” she said.
On the front sidewalk, a tree stands out — it is wrapped in colorful yarn woven like an afghan for bark.
Overall, the entire Glasstown Arts District has about 150 businesses and some municipal and government offices, said Marianne Lods, executive director of the Glasstown Arts District.
The vacancy rate was nearly 50 percent by 1999, as the city’s glass-making base dwindled and took thousands of jobs with it, she said.
By 2008, vacancy rates dropped to 8 percent before the recession and its aftermath, she said. It’s currently around 12 percent.
The economy was not the only culprit. As with other downtowns across America, competition arose from outlying strip malls, big chain stores and the Internet.
“The city was suffering like so many small towns that lost their industry,” said Millville attorney Phillip Van Embden, chair of the Levoy’s board of directors. “There was no economic development to speak of, people had simply lost the engines. And to be realistic and frank, you can’t compete with China and you can’t compete with the malls. Downtowns have to develop a reason for people to come that is not something you can get from a mass superstore or online.”
Van Embden said the circa 1908 theater offers one of those draws. Its marquee is lined with bulbous white lights.
The theater underwent an $8.5 million reconstruction and reopened Sept. 9, viewed by some in Millville as a key to rejuvenating this downtown. Van Embden said about 70 shows have been held so far, with dozens more on the books.
On a recent Friday night, Jason Rose, 31, of Pittsgrove, was browsing the posters in the Levoy’s windows as he and Lauren Cleveland, 21, of Vineland, waited for friends to walk through the downtown on Third Friday, a popular after-hours event held monthly.
“I just like hearing the music, seeing what’s going on,” he said. “I just walk around and see what’s out there.”
Daily foot traffic here remains one of the downtown’s biggest challenges. The sight of new businesses failing is not uncommon.
“People are trying, we’re trying to do our best. You need some type of retail down here, you need the women to come back shopping,” said Julie Pacitti, of Vineland, owner of BJ Roasters for the past 19 years. “We had enough negative when the economy hit, and a lot of people disappeared. Who survived and who didn’t survive.”
Dave Vanaman, a city commissioner and the owner of the Incredible Bulk — which sells candy, snack mixes and other products — said the district needs more businesses that can bring daily foot traffic.
“The city over the years has been trying to build this up as an arts district, but that’s not an everyday type of consumable item that people will come out and shop for,” he said.
Some of the relatively new businesses in the district have evolved as they try to find a niche.
Sheri Gatier, 53, of Port Norris, opened Something Sweet by Sheri in November 2011. The chocolatier was making cake pops on a recent weekday. Her experimentations with sweets led to some surprising favorites, like chocolate-covered jalapenos and sea-salted chocolates.
Liz and Matt Hyson planned a month ahead of time to get a babysitter to watch their two young children — ages 2 and 1 — while they relaxed at the shop.
“This is our Cheers,” said Liz, 32, of Millville.
Something Sweet hosts live music each Friday; Sheri’s husband, Bill, strummed a heartfelt rendition of Alan Jackson’s “Someday” on a recent one.
“Also, because they’re mostly musicians, you get some seriously good melodies in here. One time, they were playing Christmas songs and I had cold chills just because of the harmonies,” Sheri said.
Gatier, like some others in the Glasstown Arts District, said her business was started from economic necessity — she had recently been laid off.
Merritt Gant, 42, of Maurice River Township, had been laid off from a job during the recession.
“There’s no manufacturing around here anymore. What’s a guy like me to do who’s just a high school graduate?” he said.
Gant, who was born and raised in Millville, decided to open his own business, starting Merritt’s Music Service in 2009, to teach guitar and repair instruments.
It took a $19,000 investment. The business grew beyond his initial expectations. It also became a recording studio as well.
“We’re very passionate about trying,” he said. “There’s a lot of artists and musical talent in Cumberland County, and it’s no secret Cumberland County is an economically repressed area. And typically in economically repressed areas is where you find the art and music.”
Business district officials here are waiting for another major development downtown — Cumberland County College is planning a $7 million Arts and Business Innovation Center at Vine and High streets. The planned 30,000-square-foot building could bring 500 students each semester, officials have said.
Don Ayres, the director of the nonprofit Millville Urban Redevelopment Corp., said every downtown needs a niche, a brand, an identity.
“I think as the economy slowly improves, we’re going to see the viability of more retail uses and more artists will be in a position to really get involved,” Ayres said.
Inside a downtown gallery, artist and Millville resident Nadine LaSond spoke about a piece, “Budding Dreams.”
“I have a love of root systems, I think of them as pathways and decisions, and I like everyone being connected with everything. Everything has a part to play,” said LaSond, 42.
The roots in this artwork are crafted from a map of New Jersey.
Places to go
n Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts, 22 N. High St. A nonprofit community arts and cultural center.
n Levoy Theatre, 130 N. High St. A performing arts venue that dates to 1908, closed in 1974, underwent an $8.5 million renovation and reopened in September.
n Bogart’s Books & Cafe, 210 N. High St. A popular used-book store and cafe with frequent live music and events.
n Something Sweet by Sheri, 206 N. High St. A homemade chocolate and candy store.
Third Fridays. Held the third Friday of each month, the event draws an after-hours crowd with plenty of live music on streets and in various shops. Galleries and shops often open until at least 9 p.m.
Where to park
Parking is free. There is on-street parking and more than a dozen free parking lots scattered along the Glasstown Arts District.
Where to eat
Andrea Trattoria; Apron Strings Dessert Boutique; Billy D’s Home of the Original; B.J. Roasters; BoJo’s Ale House; China Wok; D&S Custard; Great Wall Restaurant; High Street Buffet; Jim’s Lunch; La Playita; Luigi’s Pizza; Manny’s Pizza; Millville Queen Diner; New York Style Pizza; Old Oar House Irish Pub; Peking Tokyo Restaurant; Wildflower Earthly Vegan Fare; Winfield’s Restaurant
Services in the district
Millville City Hall, 12 S. High St.
Millville Police Department, 18 S. High St.
Millville Public Library, 210 Buck St.
Millville Post Office, 302 N. High St.
Source: Glasstown Arts District. For more information, go to www.glasstownartsdistrict.com.
Contact Brian Ianieri: