CLEVELAND HEIGHTS: What is the magic ingredient that seems to be attracting so many former suburbanites to venture back into dense downtown areas to visit or even move?
That word, coined by Horace Walpole in the mid-18th century, sums up a special property of urban life — the greater likelihood of “fortuitous happenstance” or pleasant surprises.
When you put a lot of people and activities in a small space, they are more likely to unintentionally discover new things, new ideas, new people.
And when you park your car and wander by foot past restaurants, storefronts, or whatever else comes your way, unexpected experiences may await you.
Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights has long been providing serendipitous street life, offering several blocks of unique restaurants and oddball shops.
Although it has a whiff of 1960s hippie culture, reminiscent of storied scenes like St. Marks Place in New York or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the street continues to evolve and feel vital and authentic.
Big Fun is technically a toy and novelty store, but for those strolling down Coventry looking for adventure, it functions as a wonderful museum, filled with memorabilia from our nation’s pop culture dating back to the mid-century.
There are Star Wars figures, authentic dinosaurs from when Jurassic Park was first released, Beatles and Elvis figures and posters, along with all kinds of kitschy novelty items designed to look like antiques from the post-war years, but with contemporary messages.
Unlike a museum, however, most of the items in the store are for sale. The enthusiastic staff is knowledgeable about the store’s massive collection of pop artifacts and seems to enjoy sharing their expertise, whether you plan to make a purchase or not.
Owner Steve Presser explained that all of the people who work in the store were customers first and grew up visiting and chatting with the owner. “They are collectors with a passion for this stuff before they ask for a job here.”
Asked what his favorite items in the store are, Presser mentioned the Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots — a toy from the 1960s — and the store’s huge Lego collection. “I love to see that kids are still building physical things like Lego and not just on video games all day,” he said.
He also is proud of his 3-foot-tall “Rat Fink Bank.”
Across the street is another museum-like store, called City Buddha, which is filled with treasures from Asia, including wooden statues, clothing, jewelry and accessories. The owners make a trip to various Asian countries once a year and bring back an exotic mix of items you will not find in the mall or in big box stores.
Proprietor Larry Collins makes an annual trip to Southeast Asia, avoiding Ohio winters, and returns with a trove of unique goods from Indonesia, Hong Kong and Thailand.
“All the things we bring back are inexpensive but nice and we price them affordably — we’re not greedy about that.”
Collins grew up hanging out on Coventry and landed in the music business for many years.
“When I got tired of the craziness, I needed to shake things up so I traveled. And this business grew out of my travels.
“If you’re in Ohio and you need a Buddha, you’re going to come here,” he said.
Avalon Exchange is a unique clothing store that recently moved into the neighborhood. It features vintage and new clothing in a hipster mode. The store also buys and sells previously owned clothing. Also nearby is Blush Boutique, a women’s clothing store with a funky vibe.
Revolution Records is a Coventry institution that has been there since 1967 and is now one of the oldest continuously operated record stores in the United States. According to The 1983 Catalog of Cool, it is “the coolest place to buy records in Ohio.” The store has a tradition of having bands that are playing at the nearby Grog Shop stop in and sign the walls. The store sells T-shirts and accessories, but you won’t find any CDs — the music delivery is strictly vinyl.
The street has a range of quirky restaurants, including two great breakfast/brunch spots, The Inn on Coventry is a funky breakfast and lunch only spot, with an unusual menu that offers items like an egg scramble with andouille sausage or homemade corn beef hash, banana walnut French toast or meatless eggs Benedict.
Tommy’s Restaurant, which has been on the street in some form since 1972, has a slightly more upscale feel and offers unusual combinations of vegetarian and meat dishes, including Middle Eastern dishes falafel, hummus and baba ghanoush. It’s a rare restaurant where vegetarians and carnivores can be equally at home at the same table.
Mac’s Backs bookstore shares a door with Tommy’s Restaurant and sells new and used books as well as magazines. The store, at various spots on Coventry Road since 1982, holds events for the literary community including book signings, readings and book clubs.
For dinner, Japanese restaurant Pacific East is known as one of the city’s better sushi spots and Chinese restaurant Hunan Coventry is a longtime fixture.
For entertainment, there’s the storied Grog Shop, as well as Bodega, a swanky, below-street-level tapas restaurant and music venue, that features bands and solo acts along with an eclectic menu.
Daryl Rowland covers Cleveland for the Beacon Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.