Fifteen years ago two Mississippi State University students turned the front door key on a warm early morning in August 1996 at 511 University Drive in Starkville of a new establishment called City Bagel Cafe. They were Dr. Kim Johnson, who was putting herself through graduate veterinary school and Mr. Erron Haggard, a free-spirited soul who owned the colorful Volkswagon that stayed parked across the street from the cafe on the side of the cemetery. I enjoyed watching the building of this very pretty cafe because that spring of 1996 I had been painting next door in the iris patch of Mr. Joe Tkach. I remember ringing Joe’s front door of his beautiful old landmark home known as “The Frank Thompson Home.” Mr. Thompson had Thompson Cleaners in town. It is located right before you cross the overhead bridge coming into Starkville or going toward the MSU campus, and it is across the street from the back of Starkville’s Fire Station Number 1. I said, “I’m Carole, and may I borrow your gorgeous irises to place on my canvas?” Joe graciously agreed. He told me he was new in town and his wife, Mary, and daughters Julia and Emma had not yet arrived. I immediately loved Joe and his sweet personality, and I knew from our first hello that his brand new business would be successful. I thought, “What is a bagel?” Joe, Mary and their daughters owned and were to going to live in the Thompson Home. They also had acquired the surrounding land both behind and next to the home. Their plans were to develop the land into apartments behind the home and cafe. They did just this. Joe was a proud MSU graduate as well as a graduate of The California Culinary Academy. He loved to cook, and he does a splendid job.
I later met his family as well as Joe’s brother, Paul, his sweet and precious parents, Emma and Robert, who are retired from West Point where Joe and Paul grew up. Paul joined his brother cooking every day in the business, and their parents drive over at least twice a week to enjoy dinner with their family. Mary is from Detroit, Mich. I remember Emma’s sweet sister Harriet and her husband, Roy Martin fondly. Both Emma and Harriet’s maiden name was Seitz from our neighboring city across Tibbee Creek.
City Bagel Cafe was born. The food was divine, and we had a brand new dining choice right here in Starkville. What is a bagel anyway? Well, we soon found out, and we loved the new taste. We could have breakfast, dinner and supper. Veggie breakfast bagels hit the spot in our tummies, with salad and pimento and cheese, and melted chicken salad sandwiches with potato chips and dill pickle filled us up for lunch. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night you can get the absolute best personal pan pizza in town. My favorite is the all cheese pizza. I have several of their tie-dyed logo T-shirts.
The atmosphere is laid back, and the folks who come in are all uniquely intelligent. It is a gathering place for both the town and gown community. There are usually lots of MSU professors, heads of departments and vice presidents. Folks from the Provost’s department and even our MSU President have graced this establishment. They are meeting and making decisions over a bagel. People enjoy flocking here to laugh, chat and talk with one another. Professors and MSU students and local folks seem comfortable visiting with each other as they munch on a filling bagel, sipping on a drink. The prices are reasonable, and the food is satisfying. They also have a delightful patio facing University Drive. You can imagine seeing both the campus and town landscapes from this patio. On a nice sunny day it is fun to sit outside under a huge umbrella to watch all the people passing by. The fresh air is enjoyable as the sunshine kisses your cheeks. Someone always pulls down the window and yells, “Hey, how’s it going?” A nearby goldfish pond is right by the front door with floating lily pads with white blooms. Our granddaughter, Mallory Ann Williams, when she was 2 years old, was enjoying seeing the goldfish swimming around and suddenly she fell into the water. Mary grabbed her up and scurried over to their home to wipe her dry with a big towel. Mary and Joe do a lot of outside the cafe business too. When my husband Frank conducts his International Rearing of Insects Conference in the fall, they bring samplings of their pastries into the Clay Lyle Entomology Building lobby for their snack breaks.
On an early and pleasant Oct. 15, 1999 with my little car fully packed with my art supplies I made my way down University Drive to spend the day capturing on my large canvas The City Bagel Cafe. I was in for a delicious treat. I soon found myself completely lost sketching every detail of this beautiful and magnificent building. I could hear the motors turning and the wheels rolling behind me as the traffic kept going into town and back out again. This is one of the busiest streets in town.
Let’s together re-sketch and re-paint the painting from the left to right just like we read a book. We’ll start at the bottom and work our way to the top. I stood outside to see the sign on the side of the building. Begin by noticing the pavement of University Drive. See the sidewalk that leads you to a black iron fence. Before you get here a warm glowing streetlight welcomes you to come inside this fence as you hear the click of the gate opening and closing behind you. Look at the dark green sign with the name of the cafe on it and the tiny wooden buildings on the top. There is a black bike rack near this sign. You are entering a world of city and university life. The attractive round black metal tables and chairs are inviting, and you can hear the southern Mississippi expression, “Y’all come on in!” Find two customers as they chat about today’s news and munch on a bagel. Each has sporty caps on their heads. They are MSU students. It is a casual establishment. You can wear jeans or dress to the 9’s if you like. You always see folks talking on cell phones as they eat and laptops on the tables busy at work. Looks like what we Americans might all be doing passing time at a café.
Look at the arty blue/light purple umbrellas catching the sun as the slight breeze blows them to and fro. These umbrellas seem to be dancing in the breeze. These umbrellas must have a free life. Look with me at this elegant scene that adds atmosphere to the painting. Find the red lettering of the “open” sign in the top of the windowpane. This sign catches your eye as well as the windows in the design of the attractive red brick building. Look at the lovely roof. See how the lights and shadows fall across the roof and the windowpanes. The foliage of the crepe myrtle trees is a bloom or two of hot pink still left on the branches. All the green colors of the bushes add softness to the landscape.
Look at the sky at all the blues and whites mixed with a pinch of yellow to add happiness of the sky. There are hints of the green trees of lime green and darker greens in the distance. These greens compliment and contrast the blues in the sky as the happy clouds float by. The reddish coral brick colors compliment the blues and grays of the roof shingles. The swooping line of the roof is handsome. The driveway to the right lets you know that you drive your car to the back of the cafe to park, or park on University Drive.
As I re-painted this painting with you, the sweet memories of Joe, Mary, their girls, brother, Paul, Emma and Robert (Joe’s parents) all had a conception of a building on this spot 15 and a half years ago when the door was opened by two MSU students working their way through college, Kim and Erron, and we have watched this restaurant’s birth and life before our eyes on 511 University Drive. I returned several times to this wonderful cafe to paint two beautiful paintings of an autumn tree in full color with a scarecrow tied to a maple tree for Halloween on the sidewalk. I spent another day painting a portrait titled ‘The Can Man’, of a gentleman who collected old cans around town. He sat for me for hours by the goldfish pond. Thanks for allowing me to paint again and again.
Adjectives to describe my experience of eating and painting at this extraordinary spot would be: inviting, warm, happy, musical, flowing with happy sounds of chit-chatting of both town and university folks having a great time as they eat, talk and have fun. The most delightful, delicious and charming place in town is City Bagel Café.
Carole McReynolds Davis is a local artist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .