Patrons Prepare To Say Farewell To The Iconic Beehive Coffeehouse

Nov 16, 2018

In the summer of 1991, Bob Ziller had just moved to Pittsburgh from New York. He wasn’t living “anywhere in particular,” he says. He found a home away from home at a business that was another newcomer to the South Side: The Beehive Coffeehouse & Dessertery, which had just opened at South 14th and East Carson streets.

Beehive Farewell Week runs Mon., Nov. 19, through Sun., Nov. 25. 1327 E. Carson St., South Side.

“It was the first sort of funky coffeehouse in the city, that I knew of,” says Ziller, an artist and poet. “It was one of the few places in Pittsburgh that was open 24 hours at the time. … Whenever it rained I could just go there and get a pot of tea until the rain stopped, basically.”

The Beehive arrived at a time when the South Side was still struggling to transition from a former mill neighborhood: The sprawling LTV Steel plant (formerly J&L Steel’s Pittsburgh Works) had closed just five years earlier and was still being dismantled. East Carson, far from the regional nightlife magnet it is today, had a lot of empty storefronts. But the Hive quickly became a community center of sorts for a new wave of residents, including the artists, hippies, performers, punks and other misfits drawn to the neighborhood’s cheap rent and burgeoning arts scene.

Now, after nearly 28 years, the Beehive is preparing to close, largely the victim of rising rents and changing times. It marks the end of perhaps the most iconic business of the old “new” South Side.

It marks the end of perhaps the most iconic business of the old "new" South Side.

Funny thing is, the East Carson spot was actually a second choice for Beehive founders Scott Kramer and Steve Zumoff. Kramer, a Squirrel Hill native, and Zumoff, who grew up near Harrisburg, met as frat guys at the University of Pittsburgh, and after graduation bonded further while following the Grateful Dead across the country and all the way to Hawaii. Along the way, they saw a lot of coffee shops – not old-school diners, but places that served espresso drinks, often in distinctively decorated spaces.

Such places were rare in those days: In 1991, for instance there were only about 100 Starbucks in the whole world, according to that mega-corporation’s website. Kramer and Zumoff’s first impulse was to set up shop in Oakland, near Pitt’s campus. When that didn’t work out, they settled for the South Side’s old Lando’s Pharmacy – one of the many long-time neighborhood-serving businesses then fading into history.

Kramer and Zumoff scraped the old asbestos tiles from the floor and hung an “Artists Wanted” sign in the window. Kramer says they were “deluged” with artists, and the vividly colored results included a ceiling painted blue with fluffy white clouds, and walls adorned with works like Kevin Schlosser’s back-wall mural of mantis-eyed coffee drinkers brandishing their mugs. (Other now-familiar paintings, like Michel Tsouris’ series of smaller surreal works inset on the side wall, came later.) The Beehive’s circular, visually punning black-and-yellow logo, featuring the head of a woman with cat’s-eye glasses and a beehive hairdo, was by local artist Rick Bach.

As for furnishings, Kramer looked to tables, chairs, lamps and even coffee mugs from thrift stores. “I really wanted to do an eclectic thing, because I thought it’d be less expensive to do, and no one was doing anything like that,” he says. “And I’m like, ‘Well, we could use different chairs. And the chairs don’t have to match.’”

The place was a hit almost immediately; Kramer recalls lines around the block to get into the single storefront with its dozen tables. (He recalls someone in the media quipping that the patrons were either “Hivers” or “Hive-nots.”)

"And I'm like, 'Well, we could use different chairs. And the chairs don't have to match.'"

Hard as it might be to believe today, espresso drinks – while they weren’t entirely new to Pittsburgh – were still novel to many. “People used to come in and say, ‘What’s a cap-oo-chee-noh?’” says Kramer.  “And I was like, ‘Well, it has milk, and it’s coffee with milk.’ No one really knew what it was.”

Still, the Beehive was popular enough that in 1992, Kramer and Zumoff finally got their spot Oakland, launching a second Beehive in the old King’s Court movie theater on Forbes Avenue.

One person curious about the Beehive right away was a high school sophomore from Squirrel Hill named Mandy Kivovitz. Her decision one day to take two buses to the South Side with some friends foreshadowed the rest of her life, she says – even if early on, she’d spend more time at the Oakland Hive because it was just a single bus ride away.

Kivovitz went away to college, but in 1995 she dropped out, came home and went looking for work. Her career plan was “performance artist,” with singing, cello-playing and a side of sideshow.

“I was completely unhirable,” she says “I was far too strange at the time. I was completely wild.”

Kramer hired her as a janitor. Other janitors included her fellow performers from troupes with names like Circus Apocalypse and the Bull Seal Collective. For most observers, this was during the Hive’s bohemian heyday.

“We had college kids hanging out doing homework,” says Kivovitz (now Kivovitz Delfaver). “You had high school kids hanging out doing homework. You had a lot of hippies doing what hippies do ... We had lots of punk rockers. We had lots of goths. Lots of artists. Rappers, poets.

“It was just pretty much like anybody who wasn’t normal could go and find other not-normal people. It was before the internet, it was before cell phones. You had to actually leave the house to go find a weirdo.”

The Hive was then fueled not just by caffeine, but also by the South Side’s concentration of art galleries – there were several, including Silver Eye Center for Photography, the Brew House, and Studio Z – and used bookstores, including City Books and Eljay’s. And while the neighborhood was beginning to draw nightlife visitors from across the rivers, most bars were still full of locals, and any thought of a restaurant boom years away.

“The whole neighborhood was full of very friendly people, friendly, creative people, who were kind of in the same stage of life,” says Ziller.

"It was just like anybody who wasn't normal could go and find other not-normal people."

With stores like the boutique Slacker, South Side became the city’s destination for hipsters. And the Beehive was its town square. “You were meeting people, making connections with people on a face-to-face basis,” says Ziller. The Hive hosted live music (including sets by a new band called Rusted Root, who’d later have a radio hit with “Send Me On My Way”), poetry readings and game nights. There was even a pinball machine in the back.

In those days – before the early-2000s influx of student renters, let alone the recent real-estate boom of the 2010s – most of the Hive’s residential neighbors were old-timers, many of whose roots went back to the days of Big Steel. Kramer recalls some conflicts – residents complaining about Hive patrons being too noisy or blocking the sidewalks.

But the business grew, and so did co-owners Kramer and Zumoff’s ventures. The Beehive eventually expanded to three full storefronts; Ziller himself curated monthly art shows in each of the three spaces. More pinball machines appeared. (The Oakland Hive, which was three stories, had even more pinball – Zumoff is an enthusiast – and booked music and other live performances in its theater space, including nationally touring acts. For eight years, it also screened movies, including first-run commercial feature films.) Kramer and Zumoff launched two other South Side bars, the Lava Lounge and the Tiki Lounge, and later the Double Wide Grill restaurant.

One apex of Beehive history was the July day in 2002 when Kivovitz Delfaver – by then using the stage name Phat Man Dee – got married. It was during the street fair known as the South Side Summer Street Spectacular, and she and her betrothed, Tommy Delfaver (a.k.a. Tommy Amoeba) paraded down Carson on a huge pink-elephant sculpture affixed to the van of another Beehive regular. The caravan stopped right in front of the Hive for the vows, and a toast with café mochas.

Kivovitz, then an underground celebrity, went on to become one of the city’s best-known performers. She attributes this largely to her association with the two Beehives, where she worked, performed, and produced and booked shows from burlesque nights to ramen-noodle wrestling. “It was just a community of others and I was able to get some gainful employment,” she says. Kramer and Zumoff, she adds, “supported a whole underground economy of weirdos.”

Kivovitz cleaned her last toilet at the Beehive in 2001. But she says, “The core group of my friends, that I still hang out with, that I still work with, that I still create with, … I met them all pretty much there.”

By the 2000s, of course, the Beehives were hardly the only coffeehouses in town any more (though they remained, arguably, the most countercultural). The Oakland Beehive, which Kramer say seldom turned a profit, closed in 2002. (The building now houses a cell-phone store and a noodle shop.) Along Carson, bookstores and art galleries gave way to more bars targeting twentysomethings – and new kinds of gathering spots, like vape shops. Rents rose, pricing many artists and hippies out of the market; Beehive regulars got older or moved away. Across the city, neighborhoods like Lawrenceville also gentrified, and drew a new generation of hipsters.

The wider culture changed, too. Not only were there more coffeehouses on the South Side – including a Starbucks on the Beehive’s very intersection – but coffeehouses became less Hive-like.

“Most coffeehouses you go into nowadays are people there just sitting with laptops or staring at their phones,” says Ziller. “I mean, even when they’re sitting at the same table, they’re not just talking face-to-face with people.”

Kramer and Zumoff shrank the South Side Beehive back to two storefronts, then to its original one. (The other two became a bar, which is also set to close.) In 2010, the coffeehouse got a liquor license. But it wasn’t enough. And when the building was sold recently, the pair – as they’d done with the Lava Lounge two years -- called it a day. The announcement was made in September.

It’s not just longtime patrons who recognize the Beehive’s role in Pittsburgh’s story.

After the shop closes, probably in January, the Heinz History Center will take delivery of artifacts including the sign on the East Carson façade, interior artwork, and the famous bright-yellow “What R You Stirrin’ At?” mannequin head. Even a table and chairs will make the trip, says Kramer.

Also to be donated to the History Center are interviews and testimonials about the Beehive, to compiled on video by volunteers led by Kivovitz. Anyone can participate. Interviews will be recorded at the coffeehouse 4-8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 22; 4-8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 23; and from 2-6 p.m. daily on the first three Sundays in December.

In the meantime, old-timers and other fans can celebrate the Hive’s legacy with six nights of events during Beehive Farewell Week, Nov. 19-25. Kramer, expecting a crowd, will open all three storefronts.

On Monday, it’s Magic The Gathering Meets Beehive, followed by Tuesday’s pinball tournament (featuring machines from both locations). Wednesday, it’s Chess Club with Kumar, hosted by the long-time Hive employee.

After a day off for Thanksgiving comes Friday’s goth-and-punk DJ night, followed by a ’90s rave and after-party.

Saturday’s “main event” featuring an afternoon open-mic story time; evening performances by music and circus acts, including Ziller’s band, and Phat Man Dee; and a late-night dance party. Sunday brings a chance to look over movie memorabilia from the Oakland Hive, followed by a DJ’d ’80s night. (The full calendar of events is on the Beehive's Facebook page.)

Kramer, though, seems especially happy about what he calls the “guest slingers”: 20 former Beehive coffee-slingers who’ll take turns steaming milk behind the counter all week long. “It’s gonna be really exciting to see them,” he says.