South Craig Street Is a Block of Many Wonders


Photo by Seth Culp-Ressler

words: Dan Priore

photos: Dan Priore & Seth Culp-Ressler

At first, it might seem difficult to find some peace from the constant noise along Forbes and Fifth Avenues in Oakland. Bustling students heading to their classes and honking traffic on its way to and from Downtown set the daily scene.

Yet all is not lost for those in search of a nice place to relax.

South Craig Street is perpendicular to the Carnegie Museum of Art, just past the University of Pittsburgh. And visitors to the side street can spend an entire day eating, shopping and even satisfying obscure desires.

Photo by Dan Priore Joggers pass by the Irish Design Center.

Photo by Dan Priore
Joggers pass by the Irish Design Center.

It starts with a morning bagel from The Bagel Factory or a coffee from Starbucks. They guard either end of the street.

“I can’t function at all today unless I get my Pumpkin Spice Latte,” a young woman says as she walks with a friend.

Starbucks is a quick stop, but The Irish Design Center is a place to linger.

Founded in 1978, the Irish Design Center sells clothing, jewelry, knitwear and other odds and ends from Ireland and Scotland. Owner Paul Carey says he stays busy even though South Craig has lost many of its retail shops.

“What helps us is we’re more of a destinations tour,” Carey explains. “We not only get people who are passing by, but people who are coming to us to buy a particular thing.”

Carey says people looking around become compelled to share their personal lives with him as if they are at home.

Perhaps it is his soft and calming Irish accent or the blend of vibrant colors that soothe customers. Or it even could be the floor that squeaks as people walk around, reminding patrons this is no typical department store.

“Little kids are very hard to shop for because they are finicky about everything. You have one chance to have them try something on, and if they don’t like it, it’s in the corner,” a grandmother tells Carey while she’s contemplating buying a scarf. Soon they are chuckling, reminiscing about parenthood.

Photo by Dan Priore A corner of the Irish Design Center.

Photo by Dan Priore
Used books packed tightly in Caliban.

By the time lunch rolls around, there are many dining options to choose from. One popular eatery is Ali Baba, a Middle Eastern restaurant that looks so small from the outside, it could easily be missed. However, exotic smells from the kitchen — like cooked artichokes, spiced vegetables and hummus — fill the dining room, challenging those who have finished their meals not to leave.

Just as there are many food choices, South Craig’s comic book shop, Phantom of the Attic, offers many entertainment choices. But it’s more than a just a place to buy new and old comics; it is a gathering spot. And that’s just how Wayne Wise, comic book historian and author, wants it to be.

“There’s the cliché that comic book stores aren’t very welcoming, and we try very hard to work against that cliché,” he says. “We are welcoming to everybody.”

Wise says he and his coworkers definitely have formed a connection with the all of the store’s regulars; some have made Phantom of the Attic a regular stop since its opening in 1983 and will make sure they drop by on Wednesdays for new comics.

For those regulars, the store is a holy place. A classic Batman logo lights up at dawn to tell nerds to walk up the stairway to find their store of worship. The stairway is very narrow, so they can only get glimpses of their temple as they press on, with classic superhero posters letting them know they are going in the right direction.

Inside, enthusiasts debate pressing issues of the superhero world, laughing and bonding over their favorite fantasy stories. It’s clear the two customers wearing Spider-Man and Wolverine T-shirts, heading straight to the Marvel comics section, need no help with what to look for.

Wise feels one of the best parts of being on South Craig Street is there’s always new people to meet.

“We get 6,000 new college students each fall who have never read ‘Watchmen’ before,” he says. “It’s great to talk with people who are being exposed to some great comics for the first time.”

Wise says the best part of his job is when he can show people new books he thinks they will love.

Photo by Dan Priore Used books packed tightly in Caliban.

Photo by Dan Priore
A corner of the Irish Design Center.

Visitors to South Craig looking for more traditional books can cross the street to Caliban, which buys, sells and appraises used books and photographs.

The dimly lit shop puts books in the spotlight on tall and narrow wooden shelves. Customers squeeze around each other, similarly to how the books are tightly packed together, browsing the aisles.

An older man sits on the floor with his eyes gazing intently at a potential purchase. He seems satisfied as jazz music plays in the background, proving that despite the close quarters, there is always room to relax and read.

“I’ve spent hours in here at times because there’s just so much to look at and explore,” he says. “That’s something you don’t always get with other bookstores.”

As time stands still in Caliban, it moves too fast for those enjoying happy hour at Union Grill. Inside, voices of tired workers and students ring throughout the restaurant, regaling struggles of the weekday and finding comfort in their beers and mixed drinks. They munch on popcorn in between fast and large gulps of their beverages.

As the day winds down, it is time to close up. But aficionados of South Craig Street, and the businesses that draw them, will be back tomorrow.