by Jack Figge
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — “Welcome to Pace e Bene!” exclaims Mark Zia as soon as the door opens. From his vantage point behind the counter, he sees and greets everybody who walks through the door.
That simple greeting welcomes every person that walks into Pace & Bene Catholic Shoppe, the new coffee and book store in Atchison. Those words are aimed toward creating a hospitable environment.
“My wife and I make it a priority to not just operate the store to sell goods and items, but to actually spend time visiting with our customers and trying to have that ministry of presence,” said Zia. “We want to be a store with that personal presence that I think has been missing for so long, especially with the pandemic.”
After the pandemic, Zia, who is also a professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison, recognized a need to rebuild authentic community in the town of 10,000 or so. So, he pitched the idea to open a Catholic coffee shop rooted in hospitality and building culture to his wife Julia — who responded with enthusiasm.
“We wanted to find a way to concretely build Christian culture in our community,” said Zia. “We wanted a place focused on encountering another person, where you are not a face on a screen.”
Last year, the Zias bought three different buildings at a prime location on Commercial Street, Atchison’s main retail site. Since then, they have undertaken a massive renovation of the buildings, developing two into the main coffee shop and bookstore, with plans to turn the other into a Catholic gallery and luxury apartment.
The Zias do not see this endeavor as a normal business but as a ministry.
Because of that, neither Zia nor his wife take a salary, instead investing that money back into the store to further expand its offerings and ministry efforts. Their focus is hospitality.
“Dr. Richard White, a professor of theology at Benedictine, has a great line. He comes here a bit and he always says, ‘Pace e Bene, where hospitality is an everyday virtue.’ I think he captures the very essence of the store,” said Zia. “We’re trying to build the culture and it’s just being here for folks, whether they want religious goods, whether they want to eat something, or whether they just want to come to a place and get away from something else.”
The Zias try to attract a variety of customers, from college students to Atchison residents that happen to walk past and curiously stroll in for a cup of coffee.
“I just love that I get to interact with all of the customers, such as all of these college students that I never usually get a chance to talk to because I’m a stay-at-home mom,” said Julia Zia.
To create a welcoming atmosphere, the Zias decided to keep the store open later into the night when many other establishments have closed. This gives people a place to build community after the work or school day, when otherwise they may stay inside their house, apartment or dorm.
Throughout the day, the Zias make a concentrated effort to learn about their customers.
“We have customers with very powerful stories who have transformed and affected our lives,” said Zia. “I have been positively impacted by customers from various walks of life, in various religions, based on their own personal stories. Everyone’s got a story, and I think if we sometimes listen to those stories, we can learn and make the world a better place.”
Pace & Bene operates as a family-run business, with many of the Zias’ children taking shifts, baking pastries and cakes to sell, and providing advice on the management of the store.
“Sometimes, I worry that I can’t home school as much as I like because of the shop, but this I feel is home schooling, too,” said Julia.
Scott and Michelle Varga are from Phoenix and happened to stumble across the store when they were visiting Scott’s mother. As they sipped on espresso and shared a baked treat, Michelle showed her husband the new book she found in the store that she planned to use to teach her catechesis class.
“The ambiance and the community stand out in this shop,” said Scott. “You are greeted as soon as you walk in the door. You see kids laughing, people studying, and you feel the holiness throughout the entire building.
“It is beautiful.”