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Blending comics with caffeine

LOCKPORT – The city’s first recipient in its new round of microenterprise grants is a welfare-fraud investigator who wants to publish comics and serve coffee and tea on the side.

Pulp 716 is expected to open in mid-June at East Avenue and Charles Street, in a space that once was an ice cream parlor and later became a clothing store.

“We thought we’d return it full circle,” said Jay Berent, a Niagara County employee whose new store is receiving $20,000 from the city.

The building was long the home of Castle’s Dairy, which is fondly remembered by Lockport residents of a certain age.

For many years after that, the Flora Hatch women’s clothing store was there, and, following a brief period as a flower shop and after a fire, it was most recently a children’s clothing store called Les Enfants.

“Obviously, it’s a unique business, but it’s a storefront right on our main street. They’re taking a currently vacant space and revitalizing it. That’s one of the goals of the microenterprise program,” said Brian M. Smith, city planning and development director.

“Pulp 716 is many things,” Berent said. “It’s first and foremost a comic book store.”

Besides selling other people’s comics, Berent has created his own, called “The Girl From the Locks.”

“It’s a comedy book, ‘Archie’-style,’ ” Berent said, and its lead character is, of course, a girl from Lockport.

Berent is a comics writer, and the pictures for the book were drawn by Aaron O’Brien. He and Berent have been involved in a Buffalo creative circle called Visions Comics for the last three years.

In addition to his own work, Berent said he wants to distribute the work of other local artists and writers. “We’re going to be doing some publishing out of there,” he said.

But it’s not just a comic book store. Berent and his wife, Amy, who will serve as the store manager, will be serving up coffee and tea – but not just any old coffee and tea.

Pulp 716 aims to offer what Jay Berent calls “historical blends” of coffee, an attempt to duplicate the kind of coffee flavors that were common and popular on key dates in the past. For example, the store will offer Canal Builders Blend, an attempt to replicate the type of coffee that was consumed by the men who dug the Erie Canal through Lockport and stayed to live there. That blend of coffee traces back to about 1830.

The consultant for that and the other blends to be on the menu was Kevin Sinnott of New York City. Berent said that he Googled “coffee expert of America” and that Sinnott’s name came right up.

Sinnott, a coffee historian and blogger, also helped with some of the other key coffee dates: the Roaring Twenties blend, circa 1927; the Beatles blend, pegged to 1964; and the Blizzard blend, which is supposed to take one back to 1977 – no snow shovel included.

Berent said Sinnott “had to research what beans were imported.” He also found information on the type of roasting.

The 1927 coffee will be a mixture of coffee and chicory, which was popular at the time. Coffee was rationed during World War I, Berent said, and chicory, which tastes like coffee but contains no caffeine, was used as a substitute. Chicory gained some popularity that lasted several years after that war.

The store also will sell bubble tea, an Asian style infused with fresh fruit. Berent said he will be importing unusual Asian fruits and using their pulp in the tea, to go along with the name of the store.

Amy Berent, who studied special effects and film makeup in college, is a local woman who met her husband during the shooting of a short film, “Skullface,” which Berent wrote.

Four years ago, it was screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.

She will supervise two employees, not counting the comic book artists and writers that Jay Berent wants to recruit and publish.

Jay Berent, 38, is a former patrolman in Rocky Mount, N.C., who joined the county Social Services Department in 2005. He said the amount he has invested in the store since leasing the building last year already has exceeded the amount of the grant approved by the city.

Smith said, “We’re calling it a deferred loan, but as long as they do purchase the equipment and some of the other things they said in their application, it’s forgiven.”

The microenterprise loan committee set up by Greater Lockport Development Corp. has several other applications under consideration, Smith said.

It might be quite a trick to pull off a successful business of this nature, but that doesn’t daunt Jay Berent. “I come from a family of magicians,” he said. “My brother was the youngest professional magician in the world.”

Dana Berent, who is three years older than Jay, actually toured as a magician, and was able to retire at age 18. Jay sometimes served as his opening-act comedian.

His brother “made some wise financial choices when he was 5 years old,” Jay Berent said. “His financial adviser said, ‘Stick with me, kid; I’ll make you a millionaire.’ ”

Apparently, it worked out well.

“I haven’t seen his bank account,” Berent said, “but I’ve seen his house.”