Open mic night in Trenton, New Jersey
TRENTON, N.J. – A warm light blazed through the Starbucks windows and into the rainy dusk, and the sounds of a ukulele and a single voice floated out into the streets as well.
“The sun will set every night … and we will share each moment in the moonlight.”
Inside, college student Azhaneet Blackwell, 19, stood on a makeshift stage, a shimmering backdrop behind her, and strummed the final measures of her original song “The Sun Will Rise” to enthusiastic cheers. The café was packed with musicians, singers, rappers, dancers, comedians, poets and artists, all gathered for the store’s popular weekly open mic night.
“There are performers of all ages, from 6 years old on up. There is always karaoke, and there have been a couple of dancers. I’ve had people playing saxophones and guitars and rapping and performing duets. Someone literally whistled a whole song. Once, a bunch of people got together to perform a play during Black History Month, which was phenomenal,” said Stephanie Campfield, store manager. “It’s really become the place to be. People walk in and they’re like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’ We create a new, amazing thing each weekend.”
Not too terribly long ago, this was an unlikely scene for downtown Trenton on a Saturday night. During the week, New Jersey’s capital city is bustling – largely with state workers — as is its Starbucks. But weekends are much quieter. Campfield said lots of downtown businesses and restaurants close early on weekends, if they’re open at all.
The Trenton Starbucks is a Community Store, part of an ongoing Starbucks initiative to support economic development in diverse, underserved communities. Each Community Store, including the one in Trenton, aims to create new jobs for people in the neighborhood, and to work with local minority-owned businesses and nonprofits to support and create opportunities for the community.
Since the Trenton Community Store opened in December 2017, Campfield, who grew up about an hour away, has worked hard to find ways to draw people to the downtown core on weekends.
“I was determined not only to create a third place and live up to our store mission, but to find ways to stay open on weekends and also to really reach out to my community to do the same,” said Campfield, who has walked up and down her street urging other businesses and restaurant owners to join her.
There was a moment, in mid-2018, when the company wasn’t sure there was enough traffic to keep the store open on weekends.
“Give me a month,” Campfield told them.
“I’ve got to come up with an idea, and fast,” she told her husband, Ashshakir Campfield, at home later that night. They brainstormed for a while and ended up talking about the incredible musical and artistic talent in Trenton, yet how there weren’t many opportunities for people to workshop and showcase their work. She decided to try an open mic night the following Saturday. She got the word out, and as the clock ticked toward 3 p.m. that first day, she positioned herself by the door, ready to greet the crowd. Except there wasn’t one.
“The first open mic night, no one showed up. It was devastating,” Campfield said. “People were coming in to get their coffee, but no one was there for open mic.”
Instead of giving up on the idea, she doubled down. Her husband, a graphic designer and filmmaker, helped her make posters for social media and flyers to post in the store window and around the neighborhood. The second week, five people came to perform. The third week, a few more.
“I knew it was the start of something great,” Campfield said. “Every Saturday after that, it got bigger and bigger.”
Now, a year and a half later, open mic night is still going strong. Campfield said she has learned many important lessons in that time. One of the most important, she said, is consistency. When it comes to building community, consistency is as important as a good idea. She is convinced the popularity of store events like the weekly open mic night, the monthly Coffee with a Cop and regular toy, school supply and gift drives and the popularity of other store events is as much about consistency as it is filling a niche in Trenton.
That persistence and consistency, and the community that sprang up as a result, is one of the reasons the Trenton Starbucks was recently named “business of the year” by the Trenton Council of Civic Associations.
“I was speechless. I have so much gratitude,” Campfield said. “I always say if you reach out to your community, your community will reach right back, and keeps proving to be true.”
At the end of every open mic night, everyone in the store stands and dances the “Cupid Shuffle” together. On a recent Saturday, before that final dance, most of the café was already up and dancing, inspired when Blackwell, who had started the evening performing her own original song, returned to the stage to sing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
Blackwell, who grew up in Trenton and is studying music education at Westminster Choir College in nearby Princeton, N.J., said she loves having a venue and an audience to try out new songs. She performs whenever she can.
“When the store first opened, I would drive by and I would see the mural through the window, and I thought that was cool. But then when I finally came in, it was just like a family community and everyone was happy, on each other's side,” said Blackwell, who likes to use the stage name Betty Blu when she performs. “It’s just, like, a community place. I grew up on community. That's what I love about it. It’s like another home to come to on a Saturday evening.”
This is music to Campfield’s ears.
“When I first opened up the store, we were all asked to describe one word that we would want to run with, being a part of a community store, and mine was family,” she said. “I feel like I've created that each weekend, day by day, with my community and with my Starbucks partners. And I believe it's gonna go on for a very long time.”