South Craig Street: A Small Stretch Filled with Many Wonders

By Daniel Priore

At first it might seem difficult to find some peace from the constant noise along Forbes and Fifth Avenue in Oakland. Hustling students heading to class and honking traffic on its way to and from Downtown set the daily scene.

But, all is not lost for those searching for a nice little place to sit down and relax.

South Craig Street is perpendicular to the Carnegie Museum and just past the University of Pittsburgh. But what makes this section unique is visitors can spend their entire day eating and shopping, satisfying their most obscure desires.

It starts with a morning bagel from The Bagel Factory or a coffee from Starbucks. They sit at either ends of the street, wrapping around Forbes Avenue’s corners.

“I can’t function at all today with this,” a young woman she explains loud enough to hear down the street to her friend who is just walking beside her. She says this with a look of dread fearing a long day ahead. However, around 15 minutes later, with a cup in her hand leaving, that face of trepidation looks like one more of comfort.

Starbucks can put a smile on someone’s face by selling their specialties, and the same goes for Paul Carey, owner of the Irish Design Center.

Founded in 1978, the Irish Design Center sells clothing, jewelry, knitwear and other odds and ends from Ireland and Scotland. Carey says he stays busy even though Craig Street has lost many of its retail shops.

“What helps us is we’re more of a destinations tour. We not only get people who are passing by, but people who are coming to us to buy a particular thing,” Carey explains.

Carey says people looking around become compelled to share their personal lives with him as if they are at home.

Perhaps it is his soft and calming Irish voice or the blend of vibrant colors that soothe customers. Or it even could be the floor that squeaks as people walk around, reminding patrons this is no typical department store.

“Little kids are very hard to shop for because they are finicky about everything. You have one chance to have them try something on, and if they don’t like it, it’s in the corner,” a grandmother tells him while she’s contemplating buying a scarf. Soon they are chuckling, reminiscing about parenthood.

By the time lunch rolls around, there are many cultural options to choose from. A popular eatery is Ali Baba; a middle eastern restaurant that looks so small from the outside it could easily be missed. However, exotic smells like cooked artichokes, spiced vegetables and hummus from the kitchen fill the dining room, challenging those who have finished their meals not to leave.

And of course, for those less daring, a Subway and Quizno’s are both conveniently located on the same stretch to satisfy their appetite.

Just as there are many food choices, Craig Street’s comic book shop, Phantom of the Attic, offers many choices. But, is not just a place to buy new and old comics; it is a social gathering. That’s just how Wayne Wise, comic book historian and author, wants it to be.

Phantom of the Attic Comics welcomes nerds and superhero enthusiasts on South Craig Street in Oakland. Photo taken by Dan Priore.

“There’s the cliché that comic book stores aren’t very welcoming, and we try very hard to work against that cliché,” Wise says. “We are welcoming to everybody.”

Wise says he and his workers definitely have formed a connection with the store’s regulars; some who have gone to Phantom of the Attic since 1983 when it opened and will make sure they stop by Wednesdays for new comics.

For those regulars, the store is a holy place. A classic Batman logo lights up at dawn to tell the nerds to walk up the stairway to find their store of worship. The stairway is very narrow, so they can only get glimpses of their temple as they press on with classic superhero posters telling them are going in the right direction.

Inside, enthusiasts debate pressing issues of the superhero world, laughing and bonding over their favorite fantasy stories. There’s no doubt the two wearing Spider-Man and Wolverine T-Shirts, heading straight to the Marvel comics section need help with what to look for.

Wise feels one of the best part of being on South Craig Street is there’s always new people to meet.

“We get 6,000 new college students each fall who have never read Watchmen before,” he says. “It’s great to talk with people who are being exposed to some great comics for the first time.”

Wise says the best part of his job is when he can show people new books he thinks they will love.

Now, for those looking for more traditional books, they can cross the street to Caliban; a store that primarily buys, sells and appraises used books and photographs.

The dimly lit shop puts the books in the spotlight on tall and narrow wooden shelves. Customers squeeze around each other browsing the aisles similar to how the books are tightly packed together.

An older man sits on the floor with his eyes gazing intently at a potential purchase. He is content as the jazz music plays in the background proving despite the close quarters, there is always room to relax and read.

“I’ve spent hours in here at times because there’s just so much to look at and explore. That’s something you don’t always get with other bookstores,” he says.

As time stands still in Caliban, it moves too fast for those enjoying happy hour at Union Grill. Inside voices of tired workers and students ring throughout the restaurant regaling struggles of the weekday and finding comfort in their beers and mixed drinks. They chew on popcorn in between fast and large gulps of their beverages.

As the day winds down, nightfall indicates to shop owners it is time to close up. Those passing by know it is time to return to their normal lives, but they can take comfort in one thing.

South Craig Street is not going anywhere, and if they want, they can spend the next day wondering through those shops and eateries again.

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