Seth Amoah and Kelli Mouzon found what they were looking for in the heart of Merchantville.

"A nice storefront in a nice walking community," said Amoah, who opened the Juice Bar on South Centre Street with Mouzon, his business and romantic partner, 18 months ago.

"This town is perfect for us."

In the last year or so, other entrepreneurs have reached similar conclusions about the quaint Camden County borough, where about 3,800 people live in less than one square mile of tree-lined streets, and the tidy downtown hosts several destination restaurants, businesses, a farmers market, and special events.

"It's a great town and I want it to grow," said Rhonda Cunningham, who opened Camellias Closet, a women's clothing store, on West Park Avenue in April.

Said Charlie Koory, whose Charlie's Crepes debuted on Chapel Avenue in May:  "Merchantville just feels like a great spot for us."

I've always liked the look, layout, and feel of the town, which was built as a commuter suburb (the last train to Camden ran in 1969) and has an urbane but decidedly down-to-earth vibe. Some folks describe it as "a poor man's Haddonfield."

Surrounded by Pennsauken and Cherry Hill, the borough has long been perceived as a bit off the grid, despite its proximity to Center City and downtown Camden. Merchantville has been hyped more than once in recent decades as a town on the verge — until it wasn't.

"I remember when we had sort of a perk-up 30 years ago," longtime resident Cindy Hertneck recalled.

This time the renewed popularity of "inner ring" suburbs that are within easy commuting distance of downtown, and the appeal of walkable, bike-friendly communities with main streets and eclectic architecture, are among the factors working in the borough's favor.

Rhonda Cunningham and her fiance, Joseph Bonifacio, sit inside Camellias Closet, on Park Avenue in Merchantville. The store opened three months ago.
MAGGIE LOESCH
Rhonda Cunningham and her fiance, Joseph Bonifacio, sit inside Camellias Closet, on Park Avenue in Merchantville. The store opened three months ago.

"I see Merchantville becoming like Collingswood," said Michelle Crosbie, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Preferred.

"People are liking the uniqueness of the town and the uniqueness of the homes," she said. "Millennials who grew up in cookie-cutter suburban homes have no desire to live that split-level lifestyle of their parents."

If Merchantville is indeed having a moment, it's happening despite a lack of visible progress on the borough's marquee redevelopment project: transforming a former downtown trainyard turned two-acre tundra of publicly owned parking lots into a mixed-use town center with retail, residences, and open space.

Discussions have been held, concepts have been put forward, but no developer has signed on to make the project a reality. Nonetheless, "there's definitely been interest," Merchantville community development director Mara Wuebker said.

"We're really hoping to create a destination there, which is a little tricky" because of the site's triangular shape, said Wuebker.

The charming Victorian railroad station on the corner of Centre and Chestnut has become a coffee house/art gallery/cultural center.

The Station, as it is called, also is among a cluster of local businesses, including the nearby Blue Monkey Tavern and Eclipse Brewing, "that draw people who might not come here otherwise," Wuebker added.

"We're starting to get the word out about this great little town we all love," said Mayor Ted Brennan, a father of four who at 38 is among a new generation of leadership in the borough.

"The change in the school district has had an absolutely positive impact," the mayor said, referring to the 2015 shift from Pennsauken, to Haddon Heights, as the receiving district for the borough's high school students.

At the same time, he said, "Merchantville is not as homogenous as it once was, and that really attracts different types of people who are interested in coming here and living here."

Indeed, census data show the borough's current population is about two-thirds white and one-third black, Hispanic, and Asian.

Jim Uricchio, an architect who moved to Merchantville with his partner, now husband, Rich Buckwalter, 11 years ago, said new and younger residents have provided a boost to businesses and community organizations.

"We walk downtown and see a lot of women with kids," he said. "We didn't used to see that. There's a lot more activity on the streets."

There weren't many pedestrians around when I visited one morning last week, but I did meet Hertneck, a retired Camden public school teacher and volunteer with the Merchantville Garden Club.

She took a break from tending a display of day lilies on the Merchantville Mile, the popular downtown walking trail that runs along the redevelopment site.

"Collingswood and other towns are becoming prohibitive, rent-wise, for people who want to start businesses," Hertneck said. "You can still rent something and take a chance in Merchantville."

Affordable rent was a factor cited by the owners of the Juice Bar, Camellias Closet, and Charlie's Crepes, all of whom are first-time entrepreneurs.

Camellias "is not just about the clothes," said Cunningham, who lives in Merchantville with her fiance, Joseph Bonifacio, and envisions her shop as a gathering place.

Charlie's Crepes has an outdoor picnic and games area, has booked live music, and may offer a movie night later this summer, said Koory, whose wife, Lisa Ciacciarelli, is a partner in the creperie.

Charlie Koory lives in Collingswood but recently opened “Charlie’s Crepes” on Chapel Avenue in Merchantville. The site had what he was looking for rent-wise and otherwise.
KEVIN RIORDAN
Charlie Koory lives in Collingswood but recently opened “Charlie’s Crepes” on Chapel Avenue in Merchantville. The site had what he was looking for rent-wise and otherwise.

And the Juice Bar is on a mission to help folks be able to afford to eat better, Mouzon and Amoah said.

In other words, at a time when "experiential" retail is seen as the cure for ailing bricks-and-mortar establishments, these entrepreneurs want to be creative.

In Merchantville.