Beans in the Belfry

June 28, 2012 — I spent about three years in the tiny town of Brunswick, Maryland, doing little more than navel-gazing, although not necessarily always at my own. It was there in a beat-up apartment overlooking a train station and the Appalachian Trail beyond that I cultivated a taste for port, broke all Netflix records for disc-turnaround time, and germinated the idea that eventually evolved into OTIS.

The town’s about an hour northwest of Washington, DC, and adjacent to the fictionally infamous, but real town of Burkittsville. If you ever lose a bet with the devil and find yourself in Brunswick, I know exactly where you should go to pass your time: a 110-year-old abandoned church turned café.

For most of my years in Brunswick, the Reformed Presbyterian church at 122 West Potomac Street was just another abandoned piece of real estate on the town’s gasping main street. The red brick building was erected in 1901 and lasted as a church until 1968, when God apparently lost interest in it, as did everybody else. That is, until the next century.

Toward the end of my time in that town, the abandoned church was bought, renovated, and transformed into a café called Beans in the Belfry. I say renovated, but outside, the façade changed little. It still looked somewhat like an abandoned church, only now it had a small sign with the name of the café and some cast-iron sidewalk seating.

Turning a century-old church into a hang-out is a pretty cool maneuver, but I still never patronized it. I don’t remember why. Maybe I was too busy gathering up the courage to move at the time. Maybe I liked the idea of a repurposed church too much and was afraid to spoil it by entering to find an atmosphere only a notch above soup kitchen. Most probably, it was because it didn’t have a liquor license.

So when I left Brunswick, some seven years past, I left behind a loose end…which I finally picked up a few days ago.

Turns out, the Belfry (not a big fan of the full name) is unique in ways beyond being a church carapace. Somebody seems to have put a lot of hard work into creating a unique and cozy atmosphere. Its green walls and purple ceiling frame a space filled with eclectic decor. Antique sofas are spread around creating comfortable nooks. A small corner stage is set up for intimate musical acts. The dining tables are all gloriously mismatched. Random book shelves and picture frames fill up wall spaces. Partitions made of old doors divide the large space up somewhat. A trunk full of children’s costumes was open for its younger patrons.

But it also maintains many of the elements of the church it was, mostly notably repurposed pews here and there, a choir loft that serves as an internet café, and, of course, the many stained-glass windows, each one dedicated to the memory of some church-goer of old.

We were there for breakfast, and while we sat and ate our quiches, we saw a small, but steady stream of people come in. Some were locals, judging by the confident way they navigated the labyrinth of antique furniture. Others were hikers and bicyclists wandering sweaty off the Appalachian Trail just a block away. These latter always paused in surprise once their eyes adjusted to the stained-glass-lit interior before making their way up to the counter.

All in all, if the Belfry was in any major city, it’d be packed all the time, and you’d need to be extremely cool to get past its velvet rope. I certainly admit that I impoverished my Brunswick life by not becoming a regular. And I'll probably try the rest of my life to find a local hang-out like it again.

Oh, and since my residency there, it secured a beer and wine license, so God has begun shining his blessings on this building once again….just not to the level of gin yet.