The Shop Downtown is one of those mythical places you usually only hear stories about. Equal parts dive bar and bohemian art market, the small, disheveled 800-square-foot oasis in downtown Hattiesburg first opened its doors in the early 2000s as The Grill and Grocery and was resurrected in 2014 with a new owner and a new name.
The proprietor, Heath Kleinke (pronounced Klink-key) is a mythical creature in his own right. A Hattiesburg native, Kleinke wandered north to attend Mississippi State University in Starkville, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis in graphic design.
Later, like a prodigal son, Kleinke returned home to the Hub City and eventually found his way to 121 E. Pine St., where he met Carl McQuagge, who gave the energetic and boisterous artist a second chance on life via a job at The Grill and Grocery.
With a deep, almost-comical voice that is half Wookie, half Fozzie Bear, Kleinke is the crown prince of downtown Hattiesburg and The Shop is his beloved kingdom.
During the day Kleinke and his band of merry misfits can be found designing custom T-shirts and printing them on his six-color, four-station screen press.
But as the sun begins to set – and usually even before – The Shop transforms into what has been described as a modern-day Mississippi jook joint.
Mismatched chairs and rickety tables are pulled out onto the sidewalk and sometimes into the empty lot next door.
Speakers and monitors and sound boards and microphones are wheeled out, too, and with a little bit of hope - and an occasional prayer – live original music fills the air just about every weekend and sometimes two or three times during the week.
Serving up cold beer, chips, and the occasional burger when somebody decides to fire up the charcoal grill, The Shop attracts people from every walk of life.
From bonafide hard-traveling hobos fresh off a box car from New Orleans to white-collar business professionals trying to sneak in a beer before heading home to their crabby wives and screaming kids, a typical day at The Shop is an atypical experience anywhere else.
More than anything, The Shop Downtown is a safe place where everyone is welcome – regardless of how they look, who they know, or how good (or bad) life is treating them.
The life expectancy of establishments like these are always uncertain. But it’s the legacy that remains that will live forever – especially in the hearts and minds and sometimes dreams of its patrons: the “hobos, heroes, and street corner clowns” that call it home.
David Gustafson Hattiesburg, MS
Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor/publisher of Signature Magazine and The PineBelt News. An Okie by birth and a Mississippian by choice, he has called Hattiesburg home since 2009.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Danny Rawls, a Hattiesburg resident, has studied and practiced the art of photography for most of his adult life. He taught at Sumrall High School, where he sponsored the yearbook and got into shooting and developing his own photos. He later opened his own photography studio and worked at the Southern Miss Imaging Center.