There’s a bit of a stigma that surrounds Topeka.
After talking with someone who lives in the area, you may think there isn’t much fun to be had in the capital city.
“There always was this saying that there’s nothing to do in Topeka,” said Suki Willison, owner of Uncle Bo’s Blues Bar, “and when somebody says that now I always go, ‘Just read the paper.’
“Sometimes there’s so many things to do and so many things going on. … They’ve got stuff going on everywhere, and I’m thinking, ‘You don’t have enough time to go do everything.’ ”
Willison opened Uncle Bo’s, which is in the basement of the Ramada Hotel and Convention Center, in 2005. At first, she was a bit hesitant about starting a business in downtown Topeka.
“That was in 2005, and there wasn’t too many bars downtown that people go to, let alone have a band and have people come see the band. So, I was a little apprehensive about coming downtown,” Willison said.
“But then, you know, something’s got to be started, so it was all kind of a ‘grab your ass and go for it’ kind of deal. Over the years in the bar business, and around musicians, you call upon who’s around. … There’s a lot of people who came in and do the work and help build this little room to be something that they can be proud of in Topeka.”
Uncle Bo’s has brought in many established musicians over the past 12 years that residents of Topeka and surrounding towns might not have been able to see otherwise. Because of this, Willison’s establishment has become a bit of a trendsetter downtown.
“I think it’s an honor that I get to (do this),” Willison said. “You get to do what you love in life and you get to see performances that are wonderful.
“We’ve just been really fortunate and honored to have some of the people we’ve had on our stage. People will sometimes go, ‘I can’t believe it’s in Topeka,’ you know, and then I’m always like, ‘It’s kind of magical here, guys.’ We’ve had a lot of great musicians come out of Topeka.”
But, as Willison said, Uncle Bo’s is just one of many entertainment options downtown.
Another is Leaping Llamas Artisan Shop, which opened in August and provides art classes throughout the week.
”We do Wednesday night kids’ classes and Thursday night adults’,” said Leaping Llama’s owner Alicia VanWalleghem. “We introduced, once a month on Tuesdays, a family night where you can bring any age group and work as a family on a project.
“We try to do two to three Saturdays a month. … Saturdays we actually hire outside teachers, so they do more involved workshops.”
In addition to classes, Leaping Llamas sells art pieces, which line the walls and shelves of the store, made by creators with a connection to Kansas.
“Everyone has a tie to Kansas somehow,” VanWalleghem said. “We do a juried system, so we review the work, and we like to have all levels of artists, people who are just starting out to established artists.”
Juli’s Coffee and Bistro, in the historic Thacher Building, is another option for a wide variety of entertainment.
Juli Cuthbertson, who had been in the coffee business for about 10 years, opened the business in April 2014. In 2016, Cuthbertson’s husband was relocated for work, and she was forced to sell her shop.
“My stepdaughter worked here, and Juli had told her she was going to sell it, so we talked to her,” said Kelly Edkin, new owner of Juli’s. “It took us about six months to get a business plan all together and all the financing in place.
“It was kind of a family decision. My son and my daughter both worked in restaurants and retail. They were excited. They love coffee shops, and we had been here before on a Topeka History Geeks tour, so we knew the building.”
In addition to selling food and coffee, Juli’s hosts tastings, art exhibits, live music and a plethora of other entertainment options during special event nights, such as First Friday Art Walks, and the occasional Saturday morning.
“We felt like we needed to have something else in conjunction with the other things we do,” Edkin said. “You know, things fall off so far after 3 p.m. and to get people to stay, you’ve got to have more for them to do.”
While Willison’s, VanWalleghem’s and Edkin’s businesses are vastly different, they each attribute camaraderie to downtown’s success.
“I don’t ever think of it as being competition because people are out,” Willison said. “They have choice, but at least they’re out. They may not pick you tonight, but they might pick you another night. At least they’re not sitting in front of the TV, and they’re out doing something.
”I love it when people from in town will take their family and friends to the bar to see a show. This is like their token, ‘Oh, I’m going to bring you downtown to see what we have,’ and I think, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ ”