LAKEVIEW — The Alley might not be able to go home again ... but it can move in across the street.
Longtime purveyor of punk Mark Thomas is partnering with Michael Markellos, the Philly sandwich slinger of Belmont Avenue, to open The Alley 1776, a coffee and sandwich shop with a pared-down version of The Alley on the second floor.
"You've got the Belmont Boys in front of you," said Markellos, who opened his first Philly's Best at 907 W. Belmont Ave. in 1990. "And Mark and I are really the kind of guys who can have an idea and just make it happen."
Markellos and Thomas plan to quietly open the cafe portion of the business next week, and will be handing out thousands of free samples of Dark Matter coffee over its first few months to build some buzz. They'll also give away leather jackets, tickets to Riot Fest and other Alley apparel, Thomas said.
"We want to build up people's comfort in coming here and hanging out," he said.
Although Thomas is not quite ready to reveal The Alley's new address (It's on Clark Street just north of Belmont Avenue), he will give customers a sneak peek of the space over the next couple months before closing for a final round of renovations that should take about two weeks later this year.
After that, Lakeview will have its Alley back.
The Alley first opened in 1976 and hopped between locations before finding a home in the former Clermont Theater building at 3228 N. Clark St. After almost 40 years in business, Thomas closed the store — even giving it a proper funeral — after he watched in-store sales decline in favor of online shopping and in the face of a long period of construction on the block, he said.
The Alley 1776 will be a coffee shop and retail store carrying a pared down selection of classic Alley punk wear. [provided/Mark Thomas]
After the Alley closed in January 2016, Thomas took a year off to travel with his wife and take care of some health issues. In place of the punk apparel store, work is underway on a mixed-use development with a preserved terra cotta facade, first-floor commercial area and 24 apartments. Next door, Target opened last week.
While Thomas is still hoping to open a larger version of the Alley some day, Thomas said he thought the coffee-retail hybrid with a rock 'n' roll vibe would be a great addition to Lakeview.
Particularly with Markellos involved.
"Four to five times prior on ideas we've had, I've said, "No! No more new stuff in my life," Markellos said with a grin. "Then I saw this, and it was like, 'Alright, you got me.' I just couldn't say no."
Markellos sees a unique opportunity for The Alley 1776 to partner with local eateries for a rotating menu of available items that can be quickly prepared and delivered to the shop while customers have a cup of coffee or browse the retail upstairs.
"Belmont has always been a very unique street," he said. "It's changing dramatically, and we're bringing something you can't find anywhere else."
Markellos, whose four Philly's Best locations serve up some of the most popular Philadelphia cheese steaks in the city, plans to make small pizzas for the cafe to serve, but he and Thomas expect to adjust their plans to suit customers' tastes.
"It's just going to be the wildest thing, because it will always change," Markellos said. "In five years, his vision and mine will change, our menus will change. It'll be completely different all the time."
Upstairs, Thomas will sell some of what The Alley continues to offer online, largely sticking with novelty items and accessories like belt buckles, incense and buttons. The most popular T-shirt designs will be sold in store, with dozens more available with a digital on-demand T-shirt printer, Thomas said.
"We'll say, 'Go have a cup of coffee, and your shirt will be ready in 15 minutes,'" Thomas said.
Leather jackets will be available to try on, with orders delivered to people's homes. Thomas said that's his best option with the smaller space and less demand for retail.
He likens the idea to Hard Rock Cafe or Cracker Barrel, where the souvenir shop sometimes does even better than the restaurant it calls home.
"We recognize the community has changed — this just isn't the Belmont and Clark where Punkin' Donuts was and where [Markellos] and I grew up," Thomas said. "But I believe this entertainment/coffee/retail idea will be something big."