Chris Lauer decided to walk across the country.
The Minnesota native set off with not much more than a backpack and camping gear, bound for Philadelphia. But about 1,000 miles down the road, his four-month journey hit a snag on Route 30, in south-central Pennsylvania.
“I fell in love with Gettysburg and stayed,” Lauer said.
That was 12 years ago. He’d studied studio arts for several years, but hadn’t completed his degree. He made friends in nearly every town he’d walked through, and Gettysburg was no exception. But something about Gettysburg also inspired his creativity, so he found an apartment and studio space in an old warehouse. Years ago, a man named Waldo Pepper ran an auto-detailing business there, so the vintage sign still read, “Waldo’s.”
Lauer started rolling up the massive, paint-chipped garage door. An Adirondack chair on the sidewalk held a sign reading, “open studio.” And before long, people started venturing inside. He found his tribe—or they found him.
“We started dreaming about an arts organization that could support an artist community,” Lauer said. “And, out of those conversations, people came together to start creating and building.”
First, they built a stage and starting hosting concerts that attracted up to 100 people.
“We realized we had tapped into something Gettysburg had been waiting for,” said Lauer.
Then codes enforcement officers shut them down.
But “Waldo’s and Company” had gained enough momentum to propel the young organization to its next and current location—about a block away on Lincoln Square in the heart of Gettysburg, intersected by the very Route 30 that brought Lauer to town in the first place.
When you enter 17 Lincoln Sq., you’ll see Gettysburg Baking Co. to your left and the gift shop, Lark, to your right. So, where’s Waldo’s? Look for the descending staircase inside Lark—or seek out their back alley entrance.
“The atmosphere, that we’re in a basement and underground, adds to the idea of an artsy gallery space and trade-shop,” said Becca Muller, Waldo’s director of operations.
The first order of business for visitors and regulars alike is a stop at the coffee bar. In addition to coffee—roasted by Lauer—house-made kombucha, chai and sodas are on the menu.
“Lots of us are artists, which means lots of us were also baristas at some time,” Lauer said.
But there are no prices.
“We encourage people to make a donation instead… and the coffee bar is our primary source of funding,” Lauer said.
The nonprofit Waldo’s is also funded by external donations, grants, events, artist studio rentals and trade-shop memberships, which includes access to screen printing and block printing equipment, a ceramics studio and a darkroom.
In the gathering space, across cups of coffee, board games and books, conversation and community flourish. The “substance-free” policy provides a safe space for area teens and college students, but Waldo’s attracts an eclectic mix of ages, artists and creatives.
Muller, who grew up in Gettysburg, is a floral artist in addition to her role on Waldo’s 10-member board. She served as a teaching assistant while earning her biochemistry degree from Harrisburg University. The organizational skills she learned as a TA serve her well at Waldo’s—especially during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“At a time when nothing seemed stable or real, you could count on our Zoom sessions and trade-shop tutorials,” Muller said.
During the current “green phase,” Waldo’s is open to 20 people at a time, and a virtual Black Lives Matter gallery is being curated on their Instagram account.
Cameron Powell of Gettysburg was going through a “transitional period” about five years ago.
“I was graduating from high school, aging out of Boy Scouts, and I had no set direction,” he said. “It felt like a free-fall of confusion and poor decisions, until I met the Waldo’s crew.”
But how many 22-year-olds can claim friendships with such a diverse group of people?
“I found myself in the presence of actresses, potters, professors, foreign affairs workers and talented artists—all types of people,” Powell said.
It was especially rewarding for Lauer to see Powell plug into the community.
“I essentially got to watch him become an artist,” Lauer said. “He picked up screen printing, and he’s grown so much that he now teaches people and even had his own gallery show here.”
Powell, who earned a degree at HACC-Gettysburg, now works at a Hanover bookshop.
“They love his work ethic, which I give Waldo’s some credit for helping him develop,” said Dan Powell, Cameron’s father. “Waldo’s has been a significant and positive influence on him—as a person and as an artist. They’re a great asset to our community.”
Muller believes that Cameron Powell’s metamorphosis is representative of Waldo’s up-and-coming artistic talent.
“We have found a niche of local kids who never knew they could be artists,” Muller said.
Daniel Filler is also one of those kids—he describes himself as a “fairly regular patron” during his late high school and college years. And he fondly recalls his standard custom soda order—orange cherry cinnamon with whipped cream—and the community.
“They are the most accepting people I know—Chris Lauer in particular,” Filler said. “It’s disarming to see a dude in clear frame glasses, Carhartt overalls and a rattail haircut hunched over a letterpress when you walk in. But that’s who he is, and he will talk to you no matter who you are.”
Filler, a recent college grad, just launched his career as a software engineer in Utah.
“Ultimately, there’s nowhere like it that I’ve been and especially not in the area,” said Filler. “Waldo’s is like a coffee shop merged with your best friend’s basement, whose parents are art teachers.”
Waldo’s & Company is located at 17 Lincoln Sq., Gettysburg. For more information, visit waldosandco.com.
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