Lori Slager expanded the mission of The Sparrows beyond the successful coffee shop business base. Photo by Michael Buck
Like many a bright idea, Lori Slager and her two business partners first came up with the concept for The Sparrows Coffee Tea and Newsstand one night while enjoying a few drinks. Unlike some bright ideas, however, this one didn’t fade with the rising of the sun. Instead, the trio moved forward and opened The Sparrows at 1035 Wealthy St. SE in 2007.
The coffee shop was one of the first new businesses to locate in the now-vibrant section of Wealthy Street. Slager admits she and her partners had no indication the area would become what it has today, and weren’t all that strategic in their choice of location.
“It was a bit of a fluke that we chose this place,” she said. “We opened a month after the Meanwhile (Bar), so they were working on their space when we were working on our space. At that point there was no traffic on the street — nothing was happening on the street. They had done some work to make the area look nicer, but there weren’t all the restaurants and bustling people yet, and we just happened upon the space and thought it was beautiful.”
Slager said in the beginning the difficult part was being recognized as entrepreneurs and business owners due to their ages.
“That was one of the challenges — getting taken seriously. When we first opened, we must have looked like a bunch of kids starting a coffee shop.”
The three co-owners envisioned a place filled with creative types collaborating on projects and sharing ideas, with artists’ work hanging on the walls and music coming from a speaker system. They hoped to create an environment that would serve as a conduit for people to meet and move a lot of cool projects forward.
“When we opened, it was based on The Stray Dog Café in St. Petersburg, Russia, which was a community space for poets and writers,” Slager said. “That was what we were going for, and we thought, ‘We have to have coffee or something.’
“We are really focused on community and creating this atmosphere that facilitates people working together and collaborating on things, and I’ve heard of a lot of people working on different projects who have met here or met through someone here, which is really cool.”
After two years, both of Slager’s business partners had moved on to other things, and today she remains the sole owner of the business.
Currently, the business is debt free. It has grown from two part-time employees to six employees, and Slager has promoted a manager to run the day-to-day operations.
The Sparrows has very much become a go-to space for those working outside the office, and many a freelancer considers the coffee shop his or her office space. Slager said the shop now is focusing on improving the quality of its coffee and keeping up with trends in the industry.
“The whole industry of coffee is just constantly changing and evolving. Luckily, we have a really good relationship with MadCap and they’re very helpful in keeping us up to date.”
Slager said local independent coffee shops have developed an “in it together” mentality, and she doesn’t see The Sparrows in competition with MadCap, a café and roaster on Monroe Center, or Rowster at 632 Wealthy St. SE, or other locally owned coffee shops in the area.
“Really, your community coffee shop, it serves a certain number of people and, honestly, all our regulars are their regulars, too, because people don’t want to go to the same place every day, so they kind of switch around.”
A couple of years ago, Slager began a new adventure: a writing and tutoring center for Grand Rapids Public School students.
Inspired by the nonprofit 826, founded in San Francisco in 2002 by award-winning author Dave Eggers, Slager founded the Creative Youth Center, which gained nonprofit status earlier this year and is housed in the former Literary Life Bookstore space at 738 Wealthy St. SE.
Slager said she was approached by Schuler Books & Music co-owner Cecile Fehsenfeld who encouraged her to start the center and offered her name as support. Though she had no nonprofit experience, Slager sought help from Steve Faber (currently, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks), whom she’d met previously. Faber provided her with a list of people to talk with, and Slager began learning what she would have to do to make the nonprofit a reality.
One of her first steps involved giving free writing classes at Cook Arts Center and Baxter Community Center.
“I knew I wanted to do this writing center, but I couldn’t just tell somebody … ‘give me money,’” she said. “So I was basically volunteering for them so that I could have a bunch of student work and a book to show somebody and say, ‘This is what I am going to do and I’ll do it 10 times as much if I have funding.’
“We started building up a bunch of student work. We got The Awesome Foundation grant and a grant from the Fehsenfeld Foundation, and we were able to put out the first book.”
The program has been well received and this year received a $250,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation.
“We are starting programming the week after the 4th of July in the Lit Life space for the first time, which is really exciting,” Slager said. “We are going to have two classes, both high school. One is spoken word and one is the film/screen writing class for the Mosaic Film Festival.
“In the fall we are starting our afterschool programming — After School Adventure — that will be homework help, writing projects — all kinds of crazy fun things and probably field trips, too. And in the evenings we’ll have one-on-one tutoring for the older kids and the writing workshops.”
The CYC collaborates with Cook Arts Center on Press Corps (for ages 10-18) and Cub Reporter (ages 6-12) clubs that allow children to explore journalism, and has included field trips to local plays, ArtPrize and other events that the students then write about. Their work is published on The Rapidian website.
Although the CYC is not affiliated with Egger’s 826, he is aware of the organization and recently sent Slager a letter of congratulations:
“I wanted to write and congratulate you all on this auspicious opening. I truly believe that every community needs a center like the Creative Youth Center. Trust me people: This place will instantly become both a lifesaver for the kids who are falling behind on their writing and reading skills, and at the same time, it will be a sage haven for those kids who simply love to read and write and want to be around like-minded people. This will be a place where it’s okay to bury your face in a book,” Eggers wrote.
Slager is busy working with the CYC board to plan a fundraiser she hopes will allow for the addition of a program assistant.
Looking back over the trajectory her professional life has taken, Slager admits it is much different than anything she expected to be doing with the art education degree she earned from Calvin College, but she said her background in art probably is a main contributor to her success.
“With art, in particular, if something goes wrong, you can work that into being something right, as opposed to it being a mistake — something you can work with and correct,” she explained. “So I don’t get bent out of shape with stuff that goes wrong. I think, ‘OK, we’ll just find a different solution.’”