Pat Gerhard, Duchess of Third Street (Stuff)
Pat Gerhard rises very early, usually about 3 a.m. That way, she can get to Third Street Stuff and prepare to work the first shift of the day.
She likes the morning and the early quietness in her beloved neighborhood.
Third Street Stuff is a coffeehouse, and only by spirit is it on Third Street. Its street address is at 257 North Limestone.
But Third Street Stuff seems to exist in a dimension of its own — a place with lollipop colors, inspirational quotations painted on walls, unending cups of coffee, art supplies, trinkets for sale and lots of ideas.
Gerhard, 63, oversees it all. She lives on Third Street with her partner of nearly 25 years, architect Gregory Fitzsimons, and revels daily in the sweetness and diversity of the area.
Although she moved to Lexington from Pittsburgh as a college student, she is a sort of Mother Lexington by now — at the very least, a Mother Lexington within New Circle Road.
And she has earned the title by being a joyful example of advocacy.
Gerhard and Fitzsimons deliver meals once a week for A Moveable Feast, which provides meals for people living with HIV in Lexington.
Terry Mullins, the executive director of A Moveable Feast, said the couple are “a joy to have around.”
“The clients love them,” Mullins said. “She gets to know the people and even their pets’ names, their kids’ names. They love having her deliver, and we love having her come in here.”
Jim Embry, who has long worked for food- and justice-related causes in Lexington, described Gerhard this way: “Her work is like a stone being tossed into a pond. As the ripple spreads out, people are affected she may not even know about. There are many pieces of community work that have been generated right in here.”
Perhaps part of Gerhard’s effectiveness can be attributed to her spirit, both inside and out.
She seems to have taken the traditional idea of dressing for success, shellacked it, hung a chiffon skirt around it and put it in a neon pink frame. She is often seen wearing dark jackets, legging-type pants, boots and scarves, sometimes with a short skirt attached. She pulls it off like a boss.
If you ask, you may read her tattoos, which include advice about having fun from Dr. Seuss, a few items that originated with her son, who now works for Nickleodeon in Los Angeles, and a few words from the Lexington Tattoo Project.
She will cheerfully regale you with the stories of the three birds tattooed on the shaved sides of her head — she retains a blonde ruff of hair, like a long tonsure, at the top of her head, which she sometimes dyes a color that strikes her fancy, say, teal or pink.
And she credits her customers and their generosity with influencing her and her good work. She’s grateful for the those who come through her shop supporting causes including undocumented worker aid, sexual assault awareness and Black Lives Matter, she said.
Although she’s never been wealthy enough to be a big player in area donations, offering instead her time and artwork, “I hope I am among the passionate little players.”
“The people that come in here have such big hearts, and it taught me so much about what people do and how much they give,” Gerhard said. “I had no idea how many people in the immediate neighborhood work so hard to help others. ... I learn from them every day. When they come in, I feel like I’ve been honored.”
Gerhard is ubiquitous in downtown life, through her coffeehouse, art, community activism and unabashed love for all things downtown.
An artist, she paints in the afternoons, and she’s often asleep by 8:30 p.m. Although she listens to lots of books on Audible, she watches very little TV; she reads the Herald-Leader and the New York Times every day and listens to National Public Radio.
When Today show host Matt Lauer turned up in her shop on two successive days in 2010 to buy two nonfat lattes during the World Equestrian Games, she had no idea who he was.
Puzzled, she asked a couple of runners who were waiting for Lauer’s autograph.
Gerhard was an art student at the University of Kentucky when she arrived in Lexington. Originally a printmaker, she switched to fiber art when her son was born. Later, she moved to painting, bringing her whimsical style to furniture and clocks. Gerhard employed nearly 50 people, who helped produce and ship painted clocks, boxes, jewelry and wooden postcards.
“It was fun while it lasted, but then it had to stop,” she said.
At the time, she described her Third Street offerings as colorful and well-designed, but not a social statement: “It’s not serious — it’s whimsical.”
But standards for painted items from abroad suddenly became more precise and less expensive, and Gerhard re-calculated her business model and moved 20 years ago to her current store on North Limestone with a gift shop. Then she added coffee. And pastries. And sandwiches.
“I thought, ‘There’s a lot of people out there,’” Gerhard said. “I need to bring them in here.”
Pretty soon the gift-selling was incidental, and Third Street Stuff become a place for writers, storytellers, seekers of political justice and local food, and those who just want a really good cup of mocha-nut latte.
Bluegrass chef Ouita Michel described Third Street Stuff on the Hot Water Cornbread radio show as “magic Pat-land.”
Those following Gerhard on Facebook get shots of her wanderings a Gratz Park mansion, the Georgetown Street house that puts on an exuberant decorative display for every holiday, a meal at Gumbo Ya Ya.
Gerhard hasn’t always lived in the Third Street corridor. For a long spell, she lived around Chevy Chase. But the area has her heart now.
“I’ve always loved this little neighborhood,” Gerhard said as the lunch rush started at Third Street Stuff. “It’s quite charming.”