Coffee, Books, and Art Find a Nook Near the Navy Yard
Head Hi is not an establishment you’re likely to stumble randomly upon on your lunch break. Unless you are one of the (ever-growing) numbers of people who work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and you take your lunch break wandering its periphery. This hybrid coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery sits on a warehouse-y side street, nestled between Flushing Avenue and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It’s not in the Navy Yard proper, and it’s also not really in residential Fort Greene, which establishes itself just a couple blocks over. Head Hi, which opened in December of last year, is a small addition to a liminal space, a tenant between neighborhoods. And it’s at least a 15 minute walk from any subway station.
Still, it seems to be doing quite well. Inside, the narrow and colorful shop already has the hum of a new neighborhood favorite. There’s a coffee bar in the back stocked with pastries, bookcases lined with eye-catching covers, and distinctive-looking multimedia art stretched over every wall. As I chatted with co-founder Moscoe Alcocer over the course of a sweltering July morning, we were interrupted many times by the emblematic bustle of new business (he was, that day, serving as Head Hi’s sole barista, and had to keep stopping our interview to take orders). Even off the beaten path, people need their iced coffee.
Head Hi’s offerings are of the hyper-local, indie kind: they carry a lot of self-published titles, sometimes by enthusiastic new writers who wander in with a manuscript. They’ve also collaborated on book events with Jen Fisher, the East Village’s beloved sidewalk bookseller. Their coffee is roasted at Parlor, one block over on Flushing and Vanderbilt. And they work with visual artists who they find to be exciting, unique, and who are based nearby—artists like Bunny Elizabeth Leopard, whose work in textiles, found objects, and porcelain currently covers Head Hi’s walls. “Moscoe and Alex are very naturally building a community of artists around them,” said Leopard, who is Williamsburg-based but recalled jumping on the opportunity to collaborate with Head Hi. She wanted a space for her art “where you can sit, read, and let the work slowly reveal itself over time,” and Head Hi was exactly what she was looking for. “It seemed more like a gallery space that happens to have coffee and some great small press publications, than some coffee shop with random art on the walls,” she said.
A number of factors are likely contributing to Head Hi’s success, the first of which is the Navy Yard’s relatively recent transformation. Since it was decommissioned as a massive military shipbuilding and repair facility in 1966, the Brooklyn Navy Yard has slowly molded into a hub for new industry and manufacturing, especially in recent years. The Yard reports that its current expansion is its largest since World War II, when it boasted its highest-ever employment numbers; it now aims to add “over 2 million square feet of space and 10,000 jobs by 2020.” Area favorites like Brooklyn Roasting Company and Catbird have already moved their operations inside the Yard, and massive additions like Steiner Studios—the largest film studio complex outside of Hollywood—have shifted the area’s geography inexorably. To accommodate the expanding workforce, the city added a Navy Yard ferry stop in May of this year.
These demographic and industry changes undoubtedly affect even a small shop on a less-traversed side street. Head Hi’s founders—Alcocer and his partner, Alexandra Hodkowski—estimate that a large percentage of their business comes from those who live and work within a few blocks of their front door, people whose presence likely has something to do with the region’s expansion. Because the Yard continues to be a growing source of employment, more and more workers need a place to grab coffee on the way in. The guy who tends the greenery at the Naval Cemetery, according to Alcocer, gets his morning cup there.
Head Hi is also, of course, more than a coffee shop. Because it sells books and shows art all in the same space, it’s filling a unique niche in the area. Its founders, who have lived just up the block for the last five years, searched for a comparably hybridized space nearby, one that took art as seriously as it took business, and didn’t find exactly what they had envisioned. “It was really trying to cover our own necessity,” Alcocer said, of the decision to open the shop exactly where it is. “We actually live in the neighborhood, and good coffee, a bookstore, and art—that did not exist here.” In this way, Head Hi feels very for-the-people, of-the-people. It’s something a changing area generated for itself.
As Head Hi builds this reputation, it’s also been building a mixed community of regulars: people who stop in for the coffee on their way to the Navy Yard, people who are interested in the art and drawn to the quirky vibe. “We’ve been able to create a hub, little by little,” Alococer said. He knows a lot of faces by now, but still brightens whenever an unfamiliar one stops in. “It’s really, really nice to see who walks through that door, because we’re not on a main road,” he told me. “There’s not, like, other shopping or retail around here. So it’s really for people that are curious. Who wander.”