Pandemic, Year One: Jared Conti of Lock Haven: Coffee, Creativity, Community

Mar 30, 2021

Jared Conti of Lock Haven.
Credit Jared Conti / courtesy of Jared Conti

We asked WPSU listeners to share their experience of this past pandemic year. For today’s story, we spoke with the manager of a Lock Haven coffee house who says the community rallied to support local businesses.

“I am a husband of one, a father of two, and I manage a coffee shop: Avenue 209 in Lock Haven,” said Jared Conti.

He is also a singer and lyricist with a local band. And he’s a writer.  

“I am mainly a poet,” Conti said. "I’m at work on a long-form post-apocalyptic ballad.”

The ballad is intended to become a book. And the story is set in Lock Haven.

“I just love this town,” he said. “It’s got some neat fictional possibilities.”

When Conti wrote to WPSU about the pandemic, he pointed out how COVID-19 differs from other moments of crisis in America, like 9/11.

“You know, 9/11 hit and there was this devastation. And I think at the beginning of that there was a sense of unity, and just a coming together. And I think this pandemic has had almost the opposite effect. It’s a very politically-charged experience,” Conti said.

As the manager of a coffee shop, Avenue 209 in Lock Haven, Conti’s livelihood was threatened by the pandemic.

“I was really worried,” he said. “It got to the point where like 'Oh, man, we’re going to have to close.' And it didn’t work out that way. But for a long time we were just doing coffee to go.”

It could have been a disaster for the shop. But Conti said the Lock Haven community rallied to support local businesses.

“There was a Facebook group that was led by somebody locally that was all about these are the businesses that are open right now. And this is the seating that they have. Or these are the hours that they have," Conti said. "It was really great to see. And it was really a huge local push. Because I think people knew what we were going through. I think people knew what kind of toll this could take on their community.”

And wasn’t just the lockdown. Last fall, Conti said, an employee of the coffee shop tested positive for COVID-19.

“And we shut down. We let our customers know. And we had a lot of people rally around us,” Conti said.

The support of the community gives Conti hope for the for the future of Avenue 209, despite the continuing pandemic precautions.

“I think the future is really good," Conti said. "Seating isn’t what it once was. It’s very spread out. There’s not a lot of it now. But we do have a really good regular crowd.”

The shop has also had some help from government funding.

“The local and state governments have been very generous with their grants to keep things open. We’ve been recipients of a few of those," Conti said. "We’re very happy to be where we are. Numbers aren’t what we would like them to be. But I don’t think those numbers are going to be where they are for a long time. Yeah. We’re here to stay.”

The Echo & Sway: Anthony LaLota and Jared Conti, playing at Webster's Bookstore Cafe in State College.
Credit Jared Conti / courtesy of Jared Conti

And his job at Avenue 209 isn’t the only gig Conti has that’s threatened by pandemic.  He also sings and writes lyrics for a band called “The Echo & Sway.”

“We’re kind of a folksy, I don’t know, maybe a folksy punk band.”

The band had played gigs around the area, until the pandemic shut down the music scene.

“It’s been pretty horrible,” Conti said. “Our Christmas show didn’t happen. Our anniversary show didn’t happen…”

Like so many independent musicians, The Echo & Sway saw their gigs dry up. But Conti finds a bright side to that. He says it pushed artists to find new ways to reach audiences.

“Some local friends put on a festival,” he recalls. “A festival of music and poetry. It was all virtual. Everybody recorded their sets ahead of time. So it was nice to have a set and talk to people while the set was going on over the internet.”

And there’s an up side to all that pandemic down time. Conti is getting some time to work on that long-form post-apocalyptic ballad set in Lock Haven. And he says he and his band mate, Anthony LaLota, have written some songs in quarantine.

“You know, Anthony’s putting music to a lot of stuff that I’ve written over the pandemic," Conti said. "We just haven’t been able to get together to do it together.”

Conti says the quarantine is tough. And he has questions about the future.

“It’s a hard place to be right now. I don’t know if I’m ever going to go to a huge concert again. That’s kind of scary to put all those people together," Conti said. "But at the same time, we might have something like a flu shot every year. If we have a COVID shot every year, then I’m more than willing to take a COVID shot every year and be a little more careful with how I take care of my body.”

After the pandemic year, Conti sees people calming down a bit. And that gives him hope.

“It seems to me that things are levelling out again. It doesn’t feel that there’s as much vitriol now. There doesn’t seem to be as much anger, as much hurt, as there had been. And that’s great," Conti said. "You know, I pray that we come out of this on a positive note. I pray that we come out of this better than we were going into it.”