“While I fully support progress, it’s good to see where we have been,” said Mark Wilfong, owner of The Hidden King.
Downtown Ann Arbor has changed a lot in the last 25 years. Long time specialty shops have been replaced, often by restaurants who have sometimes themselves been replaced with even newer (and sometimes pricier) newcomers.
Even before the pandemic and the changes it brought to commuting, working patterns and living habits, the city was getting more expensive and losing its independent shops to online retail.
That is what makes the Hidden King so intriguing
The café sits in the same handsome three story brick storefront at 210 South Main Street that The Peaceable Kingdom once did, the now-closed store that Wilfong’s mother owned and operated for decades.
Now that he owns the space, Wilfong sees himself as a caretaker of the storefront that embraces the past while still keeping in touch with old world Ann Arbor in an uncomplicated and unapologetically nostalgic way.
In a oversaturated world of daily simulation, Wilfong’s space is an homage to the past that tries to be a refreshing break from the noise and chaos that it is easy to get tired of in the real world.
The most immediate thing that you notice when you walk in is the deliberate, pure, reassuring silence. There are no TVs and the music they play is minimal.
The sturdy feeling chairs in between the front and the counter are comfortable but functional. The front where shop wares might have once been displayed are now a series of benches with a smattering of cushions arranged in C-shapes facing the front door, seemingly designed to encourage group conversations over a drink.
The walls are decorated in photographs of an older Ann Arbor – a pre-gentrification time that was more homespun, rougher, and decidedly less wealthy.
A placard on the main counter shares that the cafe is a celebration of a time before Amazon and new high-rises, such as the Ann Arbor the owner’s mother, Carol Lopez, knew before she passed.
The placard reads, “Like her store, this building occupies a unique place in the history of our town. And per her wishes, Carol’s family are returning it to its original use as a social gathering place from 163 years ago.”
“I don’t know if we’ll make it as a business. But one thing that is working and I feel really good about is that strangers are coming here and start cross-talking,” Wilfong said. “People are having conversations with strangers about the history of our community that they would never have had otherwise. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched people walk in, start conversations and exchange contact info. That’s reinforcing the bonds of our community through simply looking back through our shared history.”
Wilfong said he is keeping his list of suppliers as eco-friendly and local as possible. He’s even got an electric H-Vac system for the summer.
Caffeinated drinks range in price between $2.50 to $5.50. Alcoholic beverages range between $5 to $12. Food is limited to snacks like pretzels and cakes ranging from $2 to $5 a piece.