The Gallery Espresso: Building Community and Supporting Artists for 30 Years

In a town brimming with artists, there is a surprising dearth of galleries and venues in which to show work [see my
2022 year-end thoughts on this subject]. But on the corner of Bull and East Perry Streets stands a venue that has consistently supported artists for over three decades. The Gallery Espresso celebrates its thirtieth year this fall; I sat down with owners Judy Davis and her daughter Jessica Barnhill to learn more about this Savannah institution.

Originally from Pittsburg, Davis moved here from Florida in the early 90’s after a major life change, but not before “asking permission to invade Jessica’s territory” as her daughter was, at the time, a student of graphic design at SCAD.  Davis had been in the racehorse business in Florida and ran a barn “that became the coffee place on the track. I was always an intense coffee drinker, very fussy about getting the right beans, and everyone stopped in with us for coffee each morning.” And that was why she thought of opening a coffee shop here…

Davis’s first location was in the basement of 6 East Liberty St., the current home of The Book Lady Bookstore. “The cave” as she calls it, was “cozy” but small, and so she jumped at the opportunity to rent from property owner Sylvan Byck at the current location. “It was scary to move a business and expand into such a big space. But we made it work and we’ve been here since January of ’03.”

Interestingly, Davis and Barnhill were also the original owners of the Starlander Café on 41st Street, a tidbit of Savannah’s history I somehow did not know. “We started that, and named it that,” Davis says. “We were there for about two years, but then this current space became available, and it just became too much.”

Davis tells me that “the concept for Gallery Espresso came from a [now defunct] place in St. Augustine called The Bunnery Bakery and Cafe. There was always a line to the door.” She has certainly succeeded in replicating “the line to the door” as her homey, funky space is abuzz with activity, packed with locals and students pecking away at laptops and cellphones,  and with tourists taking a respite from their explorations and from the humidity. Eclectic sofas, vintage tables and antique chairs sourced from Jere’s Antiques fill the space, while outside the street-facing windows, metal sidewalk tables and chairs are occupied by dog owners or bicyclists enjoying coffee and conversation.

Initially, Davis says, “we had some tough years. When we opened, I think there was one other coffee place in town – Joe Beans on State Street.” Long before the ubiquitous Starbucks arrived, Davis was educating locals about espresso drinks while selling bagels and muffins. It was almost like the dark ages of coffee blending: “I had to wait for someone to come from Atlanta if the espresso machine went down!” she recalls.

Davis has had a wine license since 1995, and she laughs as she tells me that the café is “a good date place – especially for people who are just meeting up for the first time.” From her file-strewn table by the windows overlooking Perry Street she says, “I can usually figure that out as soon as they walk in!” 

Davis does the ordering and paperwork for the business, while her daughter “runs all over town doing all the rest of it.” Daughter Jessica Barnhill enjoys choosing the gift items that are displayed throughout the space: teapots, mugs, plates, loose teas, and so on, and is also responsible for curating the art that adorns the walls. Barnhill, who has been full-time for the last 20 of the café’s 30 years, eventually joins us, rather breathless after unloading supplies from her car.

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The Gallery Espresso: Building Community and Supporting Artists for 30 Years (2)

Gallery Espresso

Judy Davis (L) and her daughter Jessica Barnhill

Mother and daughter reminisce about renovating the circa 1859 space, ripping out all the carpet to find the original tiles, and opening up all the interior walls to make it the open-plan and spacious cafe it is today. And they tell me how art has always been an integral part of the business. “I had a lot of art students working for me,” Davis says, “and so we gave opportunities to unknown artists. As a matter of fact, when we had our twenty-year celebration, Marcus Kenney came to remind me that his first-ever show was here.” Now-established artists such as Kenney, Gerome Temple, Adam Kuehl, Stacie Albano, Mary Hartman, and Monica Cook all showed at Gallery Espresso long before their careers took flight.

Currently, Barnhill is showing work by Michael Mahaffey through October 31, and Melody Postma (who I wrote about in my July 11 column ) will show in November and December. Mahaffey says his show ‘Style and Savagery in the 912’ addresses “Savannah specifics that locals may appreciate, and tourists may find illuminating. Savannah holds so many stories and has thrived for generations, so it’s challenging and fun to delve into these tales visually.”

Mahaffey graduated with a BFA in Illustration from SCAD and then headed west to make art in Tucson and San Diego. A full-time artist since 2011, he has been inspired by Hollywood icons of the 60’s and 70’s, pop culture figures, and by memes about our current political climate. He cuts out stencils and spray paints them onto canvas, often including written messaging. He self-describes as a graffiti artist or street artist and enjoys the immediacy of his chosen medium to tell a story. He has had several shows at Gallery Espresso, Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, a Sulfur Studios show, and has participated in group shows at Location Gallery, Now living out west, he feels there is a distinct lack of an accepting artist culture in our city: “Savannah can be a very frustrating place to live and work, but it’s undoubtedly unique and stunning. It has affected my work in wonderful ways, and I’ll always love it and treasure my time there.”

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Gallery Espresso

Mahaffey’s work is in the cafe through the end of October

Come check out Mahaffey’s art and enjoy a glass of wine or an espresso drink with a pastry, muffin, wrap, sandwich, bagel, slice of cake, or a fruit and cheeseboard. Who knows, you may run into a visiting celebrity… Barnhill reports that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez  stopped by to relax during the week-long celebration of their recent marriage, that Kevin Spacey enjoyed al fresco glasses of Port while filming “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” that the façade of the café is in the opening scene of “Forest Gump” while the inside is featured in the TV series “Council of Dads” and in a key scene of the newly released “May December” movie starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.

And if no celebrity is in sight, you can always join Judy Davis in spotting the blind dates!

Visit The Gallery Espresso at 234 Bull Street and follow them at or @galleryespresso, Find Michael Mahaffey on Etsy or on Instagram at @mrmahaffey.

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