Water Witch Coffee Offers Blend Of Art And Culture

June 21, 2018
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Jack Killilea, a new guitarist, practices at Water Witch Coffee on a Tuesday afternoon. The shop has live music every Wednesday night and hosts blues jams and traditional Irish music jams on Sundays each month. Photo by Jenna Moldaver

By Jenna Moldaver |

HIGHLANDS – “Water Witch is like this vortex,” said Valerie Browning, owner of Water Witch Coffee. “All these creative people just come toward it.”

When waiting for your order at Water Witch Coffee, you won’t be at a loss for entertainment. Your eyes may drift across art-lined walls, fixating on vibrant pieces from artists across the country, or you might take a seat in a spindle-back chair and absorb the eclectic decor that encompasses you in your little corner of this inventive space on Waterwitch Avenue. Either way, there’s a lot to see, hear and experience.

A copy of the Constitution hangs on the restroom door. The objects that adorn the walls run the gamut of time and place: a public health advisory sign from the city of New York parks and recreation department that warns pregnant women not to “eat fish or eels caught in these waters,” a boxed “crazy cat lady” action figure, a sombrero, a sign for Bianchi bicycles. Try to find a thread that runs through this decor, a unifying theme or a cumulative message, and you might just drive yourself crazy.

Instead, appreciate the amalgamation for what it is: a fusion of crafted works of art and simple snapshots of reality. It is, at once, a space that displays creative outputs and reminds us of less-inspiring realities: a painting of a woman with blue hair on one side of the room and a copy of “Civil War Naval Chronology” on a bookshelf on the other. It is wonderfully alternative without trying so hard to be. It is as transcendent as it is grounded.

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Browning, who has run the shop for four years, has grown Water Witch into a cultural hub. There are blues jams every third Sunday of the month, traditional Irish music jams every second and, most popularly, open mic night every Wednesdays. The music scene has given birth to groups like the Water Witch Jazz Band, which has used the space both to practice and perform.

“It’s a welcoming atmosphere for people to come into as musicians and the place really fosters the growth of all the arts,” said Browning.

Water Witch has artists lined up well into next year to do art shows in the shop. Every two months a new artist takes over the walls of Water Witch, giving customers an ever-changing backdrop. Some artists have created entire shows just for the purpose of having their work displayed at the shop.

“Every two months the customers have a whole new genre or idea of art,” says Browning.

But not everyone who steps foot in the shop is buzzing with artistic talent. While a welcoming space for creative types, Water Witch is home base for a wide variety of locals.

“We have a lot of regular customers who I see every day who have been coming here for 12 years,” says Browning. “Some are detectives, some have had computer engineering jobs and they show up at 6:30 every morning. If one doesn’t show up they end up calling the other ones.”

Browning says she couldn’t begin to describe all the different people who come into the shop. “Highlands has a sort of quirkiness to it and it’s filling up with all sorts of people,” she said.

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One thing they all have in common, though, is they all care deeply about the shop and together they form what Browning calls the “Water Witch family.”

“There’s this one woman who comes in who says, ‘Val, this place saves lives,’ ” Browning said. “Because without it they wouldn’t really have anywhere to go. There’s a Water Witch family. You can walk into the shop and find someone if you need help. Someone will know something about almost any topic.”

When she’s having a bad day, Browning says the cure is simply going in to work, where customers fill the place with color. Customers have named menu items, jammed out on weeknights and grown to know the staff. They are more than patrons; they are participants.

Water Witch Coffee is more than just savory paninis and espresso drinks; it’s a breath of pure authenticity in the Highlands community. It’s both a venue where musicians can perform during Wednesday open mic nights and a workspace for anyone with a laptop and a latte craving. You can use it for its authentic promotion of the arts or for its Wi-Fi and crepe offerings. The space is yours to experience.

And experiencing it is exactly what people have done.


This article was first published in the June 14-June 21, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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