It was afternoon in Aggieville when David Sauter announced that he was done with caffeine for the day. Across the bar in Public Hall, Diane Meredith told stories about Aggieville 30 years ago. Sauter and Meredith had already co-owned Acme Gift, The Dusty Bookshelf, Thread, Super Cub, and Varsity Donuts when the more than 100-year-old former grocery store became available. Co-owners David Sauter, Diane Meredith, Jessa Voos, Jessica Mauck, and Taylor Carr were attracted to the space, in part, because the potential collaboration with adjoining Orange Sky Yoga.
Voos, also an owner of Orange Sky Yoga, was quick to highlight the collaboration’s value to building community among customers. “The Orange Sky community is so grateful for a space to relax and wind down after classes, to spend time together, and get to know each other.” Public Hall also houses rentable office space, once occupied by The Alms Group, a “for-social-profit” real estate brokerage.
It’s a huge space, shared between Public Hall and Orange Sky Yoga, and is separated by three steel shutters that remain open during the studio’s opening hours. Sauter said that the offices were a natural result of the things people had asked them for over the years: bookshelves and office space were at the top of many lists.
“We probably weren’t going to sell bookshelves out of a coffee shop,” Sauter said. “But the office space, with so much room, we could actually make work. Once you throw in a few offices, you all of a sudden have some constraints. And constraints are good. Constraints force you to make decisions, create inflection points.”
This is where Sauter bowed out to Meredith’s and Carr’s creative eyes.
The whole building was retrofitted to the original style. The old grocery store logo protruded on the brick in the east nook. There’s history in the walls, along with old peanut shells and cement chippings.
“It’s super important that Aggieville stays a little old timey village, but just a polished, more well-maintained one,” Meredith said.
She is particularly fascinated with the history of the district, having been an Aggieville business owner for over three decades now. “I imagine who the former business owners were, what they did, what they wore, what they said, what sort of customer service they provided. Women wore long dresses and hats and swept the entries. We try to honor and preserve the space as best we can and breathe new life into it.”
Meredith sat on a sofa in the west nook, observing patrons coming and going. Nearby, students plugged in their laptops under three-foot tabletops built by local maker, Jonathan Mahorney. They barely noticed Aggieville passing them outside the shop’s large bay windows. People at the cluster of tables at the back of the main hall lifted their heads when customers walked in, as if to say hello.
A herd of yogis emerged from the neighboring Orange Sky, matts nestled between their ribs and elbows. Some sported a fashionable duffle bag over their shoulder. One yogi said that it’s great to see someone recycling in Aggieville. For Carr, Meredith, and Sauter that one is a no brainer.
Seasoned coffee drinkers cheer the glowing-red bags of Intelligentsia Coffee decorating the bar and barista station—a warm taste of a previous city-life for some.
“It’s really, really great coffee,” Carr said. “It’s fun to have a brand in the shop that makes us feels like we’re on vacation in Chicago. They’re a company that’s incredibly supportive of their coffee farmers, which makes it easy to love them and want to work with them.”
Intelligentsia is committed to sourcing, developing, roasting, and distributing the world’s finest coffees.
“I respect Intelligentsia’s mission to get speciality coffee to people in small towns and educating people about non-chain coffee experiences,” said Elana Carroll, cafe manager and latte art champion at Arrow Coffee.
Devon O’Malley, manager at Public Hall, said that he also plans to debut a food and cocktail menu in the near future. “We’re currently perfecting a myriad of cocktails. We’re working on bringing meals and shareable plates that breed community. People can come with a friend and hang out and share food.”
In the east nook, a group of students ploughed silently through homework; the 6-foot-long, wooden table jutting out from the brick wall was littered with textbooks, colorful notes, and charger cords—family style. At the other, a date seemed to be going well, the couple leaning in over empty cans of Wanderlust beer. The woman shook hers, stood and walked to the bar, past the small arsenal of pastries and cookies—almond poppy seed, pumpkin spice, coffee cake, orange chocolate, s’mores and oatmeal raisin.
Sauter and Meredith will admit that their inspiration for Public Hall was an accident, but that they’re happy to contribute some balance to Aggieville, which is the oldest shopping district in Kansas.
“We’ve repeatedly said no new projects these past few years,” Sauter said. “Our biggest concern with this place was that it was a barn, and we were worried that someone would just come along and put something that was sort of…”
“…more of the same,” Meredith finished his thought.
Sauter and Meredith believe wholeheartedly in the continuous, growing future of Aggieville and its value in Manhattan. “K-State is the number one reason people come to this town. Aggieville is the second,” Sauter said. “If people don’t understand how important Aggieville is to this community, then they’re sadly misinformed.”
Meredith is most excited about the traditions that will be born in the coming years at Public Hall: “Mulled wine on the first frost, nothing during the Nothing Festival, St. Patrick’s Day traditions, people signing the bottom of the tables, bringing candles out to tables every day at dusk …” On the last point, she expresses some anxiety in lieu of the 2017 fire at The Dusty Bookshelf.
Carr talked about the eclectic use of such a large, varying space: “My favorite part about the different spaces in Public Hall is that whatever reason folks may have for stopping in, we hopefully have created a space for them to have intimate conversations, work on group projects at the larger tables, and make new friends with the rad staff behind the counter. We’ve collected ideas from everywhere we’ve travelled and incorporated them into this space.” Carr pointed to the east nook and said, “San Francisco.” She pointed to the west one and said, “Minneapolis.”
Meredith, Sauter, and Carr have travelled the country, searching for inspiration and ideas. Meredith said, “We’ve gone to 10 coffee shops a day in New York; we’re passionate about making a difference and inspiring people to do cool things in this town.”
Sauter admits that he leaves much of the designing to Carr and Meredith.
“We knew we wanted it to be very intimate and cozy and homelike,” Meredith said. “We want people to feel like they can stay here. We also want people to be respectful and not take up an entire table for five hours—sophisticated, warm, and well-designed—we want to give the customer everything we can give them.”
The barista offered patrons samples of the three organic Tractor beverages available on ice: Orange Blossom Cardamom, Lemon Tumeric Cane, and Apricot Peach. In monstrous tubs behind the bar, they are the last colors of fall: pine tree green, earthy brown, and oak leaf yellow. The barista told me that some people like to mix them.
In the rear section of the building, three booths were jam-packed, each with a handy lamp on the wall that the patrons govern. Across from them a mosaic of yellow sticky notes bore suggestions: “more Counting Crows,” “cushioned chairs,” “oat milk please,” “art mural,” “veggie juice,” “AC/DC,” “bike rack,” and “fire pit.
Outside, a group of men played ping-pong on the patio, which Sauter and Meredith admit is a work in progress — both the ping-pong and the patio. Two children, siblings perhaps, chased after stray balls and tossed them back in the basket.
Meredith said that her favorite moment at Public Hall was, “a day we rode our bikes down and played ping pong. It was 65 and overcast, and when someone brought coffee to my table, I literally teared up.”
Back inside, a woman took up the only single seat in the house across from the sofa. She wore a felt homburg ornamented with a brown feather. She read a paperback and scribbled notes in a Moleskine—she could be a writer.
The couple on the date held hands as they left. And eventually, the students in the east nook finished studying. When the patio door opened, the clucking from the ping-pong game rang through the main hall followed by a brassy cheer—someone had scored.
Laptops, pastries on silver dishes, and stout mugs of coffee adorned the L-shaped bar. Public Hall is a mingling, elbow-rubbing spot. Lights overhead blared down onto tooth-colored bar top. Plugged into their headphones, the congregation buzzed away with their respective work like crows on telephone wire.
Gavin Colton graduated from Kansas State University in December 2018 with a Master in Arts in English, with a focus on creative prose. If Public Hall is open, he will likely be found there.