After only a year of business, 9 ¾ Expresso is already leaving an impact on the community in a very unique way.
The small cafe under the stairs is head-to-toe Harry Potter inspired, complete with baristas dressed in wizarding robes, a floating broomstick and plenty of potions and tonics to choose for drinks.
The cafe is in a bright, open room in the building, but getting to it required a walk through a small dark closet that was dubbed the “Harry Potter Closet” at the E. Clair Beauty salon, owned by Elizabeth Strusz.
The hallway that now connects the cafe to the salon was not in the original design of the building, so the team had to walk through a break room and then that closet before they could reach the elevator.
“Every time you walk through this dingy, scary closet, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a Potter closet’ because you just ‘poof!’ and you’re in this beautiful, sunny area,” Strusz said.
During the pandemic, Strusz bought the building and took out part of the wall, creating a hallway and making the room easily accessible to the salon.
“Once you take out a brick wall and you have a Harry Potter closet and you realize people like caffeine and you’re a huge geek, you marry all that together and you wind up with 9 ¾ Expresso,” Strusz said.
Once the idea of the cafe was formed, Strusz partnered with Jen’s Joe to supply the coffee beans for the cafe.
“Originally, Jen’s Joe had coffee here, starting four years ago, and she got the opportunity to move over to Buckwater,” Strusz said. “At that point, she was looking at two places and I said, ‘Hey, I want to run with this idea, but I still want to use your beans. I love your flavor and I love what you do, so I want to work with you but run it just a little differently.’”Jen’s Joe gave Strusz their blessing and they continue to work together to create coffee for both 9 ¾ Expresso and Jen’s Joe.
After the cafe secured its source of coffee, the entire team of employees came together to take part in designing the artwork that encompasses the building.
“Everything that you see in here has been created by the people that have worked here,” Strusz said. “I’ve said, ‘Here’s my idea, now put your flavor on it.’”
The artwork includes everything from a Lego Hedwig to the painted stairwell that the cafe sits beneath.
“I think the part that I love the most is, while this is in theory my idea, it has so much written from everybody else,” Strusz said.
One piece of artwork that serves as both a decoration and a method of bringing magic to the cafe is the owl post, where customers can take and leave letters of encouragement for other customers visiting the cafe.
“The owl post is awesome because somebody, while they’re waiting for their coffee, might have something inspirational to pass on to the next person and the next person comes in and they can take it with them,” Strusz said.
The post is one of the many ways the cafe helps every person who walks in the shop feel welcome.
“I was heavily bullied as a kid and bullied for stupid reasons,” Strusz said. “So one of the biggest things that we have worked on is making sure that we’re inclusive to everybody.”
According to Strusz, inclusion doesn’t stop at the pride flags hanging on the walls but continues through caring for the community when they need help and support.
“One of the coolest things that has happened so far is a woman from Cape Girardeau sent me a private message saying her kid just came out to her as trans and didn’t know where to go,” Strusz said. “We’re just a coffee shop, but the fact that you can reach out and ask me where to take your kid is super cool.”
Strusz said the 9 ¾ Expresso team is consistently working to improve the diversity of the community by making the cafe accessible to everybody.
“As long as you’re nice and kind, we really want to support you and we want to make sure that you feel welcome and that you have a place to come to […] Everybody has a seat at our table,” Strusz said.
Morgan Perdue, an employee of the cafe, said the best part of working at the cafe is the sense of inclusivity in the building.
“I’ve never had an environment so accepting of not only LGBT+ but also with your own personal mental health days. If you need that, we allow that here,” Perdue said.
Rose Calhoun, another employee of 9 ¾ Expresso, said they came from working in the fast food industry to the cafe and immediately felt the change in the environment.
“I knew from the second I walked in that this place was an accepting place and I felt comfortable in the environment,” Calhoun said. “Even if I’m just working as a barista, it feels like I’m more than just a barista, I’m part of a family. I’m able to be who I am and everybody is super accepting of it.”
Calhoun said they had to wear a strict uniform in their last job so they felt a difference in the cafe as soon as they tried on their wizarding robe.
“I was like, ‘I’m really working in a wizard costume right now’ and I just felt so comfortable and I felt like I was my own person,” Calhoun said.
Strusz reiterated that the baristas play a major role in the inclusivity of the cafe.
“Every barista that works here puts so much work into the magic that you can’t help but feel loved when you come in,” Strusz said.
Strusz encouraged the community to stop by to visit the cafe at 212 South University Avenue, Carbondale, Ill. 62901 and take part in the magic and wonder of it.
“We’re definitely not just making drinks here, we’re wanting to sell the experience of being here and wanting to open a welcoming environment. If you don’t feel as accepted at your own place or your home, you have a place here you can call family,” Perdue said.
Photo Editor Sophie Whitten can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @swhittenphotography.
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