This article was written for our sponsor, Gig East.

Larema Coffee House opened in Rocky Mount in September of 2019. Drawn to the community of Wilson and its similarities to Rocky Mount, owner Kevin McLaughlin decided to expand, opening a location in Wilson’s Gig East Exchange in November 2020.

While COVID-19 has impacted the amount of foot traffic passing through the Exchange, the support that the community has shown Larema has been overwhelming.

For residents of Wilson, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The coffee house has quickly become a third space — a place outside of the office or home where people can gather to socialize, work, and relax.

“It hasn’t even been six months yet, but the coworking aspect of Gig East launched at that same time. For us, it’s an opportunity to serve both the co-working members, as well as the broader community — and to be a bridge between what’s going on with Gig East and the city, as well as with the general community,” said McLaughlin. “It’s a beautiful space, and we’re mostly just doing craft coffee and tea right now. Our whole mission is to create a safe and welcoming space for the entirety of the community to come together, to enjoy each other’s company, to enjoy beverages and foods, and to let them know that they’re seen as valuable members of the community.”

The coworking space at the Exchange requires a membership — with tiers of membership available in a range of prices — however, Larema Coffee House is currently open to the general public, as well.

For downtown business specialist Kelliane Davis, Larema was the perfect addition not only to the Exchange, but also downtown Wilson.

“What we’re trying to do there is create an entrepreneurial atmosphere, and needless to say, coffee goes along with that pretty well. It gives people the opportunity to collaborate and meet with others over a casual cup of coffee as opposed to in a formal environment,” said Davis. “These third spaces in our downtown and around the city are already starting to blossom so much — that was something we didn’t have even a few years ago.”

Davis hopes to see the Exchange act as an accelerator for development in downtown Wilson. In anticipation of more people being able to explore the space soon, as well as warm weather on the horizon, the Exchange is currently in the process of opening an outdoor patio that could be used for Larema customers in addition to Exchange members.

While the pandemic has slowed things down a bit, McLaughlin sees the silver lining.

“One bright side of this is that it’s given us a chance to get to know people at a little slower pace and have time for conversation. We can ask people what brings them downtown, what they do for work, what they love about Wilson — it’s been a great way to understand people and the community in a better way,” said McLaughlin. ” For us, it’s just all about relationships. We’re always looking to partner with local people and highlight the good work that is being done in that community.”

For both McLaughlin and Davis, the smaller size of Wilson is a benefit to growing third spaces and community involvement. While people in larger cities might want to hide their favorite spots away from the traffic of other people, in smaller towns, the more the merrier.

In downtown Wilson, spots like Casita Brewing and the Whirligig Park have been intentionally designed to allow people to work and socialize throughout the day, and strong public wifi helps bolster those efforts.

“In a town like Wilson that values community so much and has a smaller population, we don’t have to worry about our third place getting overrun — we actually want to create that problem in a sense. We don’t fear it in the same way that someone in a big city would,” said Davis. “We’re learning that giving people the freedom to do work differently is acceptable and does not impede productivity. Businesses and restaurants around Wilson have been encouraging people to come in, bring their laptop and hang out — especially as the way we work is changing.”

As more traffic returns to downtown Wilson, Davis expects to see further growth in the upcoming years. Small, local businesses like Larema Coffee are helping to drive that growth by supporting the community and offering a welcoming third space.

“We’re committed to providing the spaces, the food and drink, and the programming and events that remind us of the importance of sticking together, particularly when times are hard,” said McLaughlin. “Coffee and food are powerful tools that unite us, particularly in times that are both isolating and polarizing. From a human standpoint, I think that the coffee house can be a powerful avenue for coming together and strengthening the bonds of community.”

This article was written for our sponsor, Gig East.