Athens, Ohio. A college town surrounded by Appalachian land with its very own miracle mile down East State Street. At Ohio University, you will find all walks of life, pursuing all types of careers. There are journalists to engineers, marketers to health professions. All wrapped up in the hustle and bustle on a campus serving roughly 23,000 people. But, should one be looking to take a trip just off campus, a beautiful hidden gem, several in fact, are just around the corner.
As you drive into Athens, one thing becomes prevalent, there is a lot of green. From the trees to the landscaping to the school colors, there is a lot of green. Now, if you are like me, you love to go on mini-adventures and explore a little bit. I highly recommend spending a day or two going to a few of the places Athens has hidden away outside of campus. One such place is Radar Hill.
Radar Hill got its namesake by being built during World War II by the U.S Army. Later, it was used by the Air Force as a small defense research facility. Ohio University’s Radar Hill was the place for the world’s only privately operated satellite station, allowing OU and its partners to receive and transmit from the same place.
Enough about the history, what makes Radar Hill such a great spot to visit? Well, to me it’s a few things. First, the view is incredible. Once you make the short trek behind the Ridges, you will find yourself with a breathtaking 360-degree view of Athens. You are able to see for miles and miles, you can see almost the entire OU campus and the vast Appalachian land. Secondly, the hill is a great destresser. If I ever feel down or just stressed to the point of freaking out, I like to do two things, play some basketball and/or go adventuring. When you are up on the hill, everything that is worrying you just seems to melt away. Up there, you are free and life just seems as simple as the light breeze blowing around the land.
Secondly, the hill is a great destresser. If I ever feel down or just stressed to the point of freaking out, I like to do two things, play some basketball and/or go adventuring. When you are up on the hill, everything that is worrying you just seems to melt away. Up there, you are free and life just seems as simple as the light breeze blowing around the land.
And lastly, Radar Hill is just a place for everyone. Nature lovers, hikers, townies, students, adventurers, almost everyone enjoys this trip up to the highest point in Athens. It truly is one of the gems of this small town.
If you would like more information on the trails or just general information on the hill and surrounding areas, I recommend visiting the Athens County Visitors Bureau or trekohio, an online site that visits many great spots in Ohio.
I know you’re looking at this picture and wondering how somewhere so unspectacular could be the sole place I find as a hidden gem in Athens. Welcome to my RiverGate apartment go-to spot. It’s bland, completely the opposite of awe-inspiring, and for a lack of a better word, practical.
In retrospect, these are the qualities that I find wonderful about it.
You see, I’m an extrovert with 95% of my day constantly deriving from interacting with others. I love social gatherings, meeting new people, and striking conversation when I deem someone or something interesting. I thrive on undivided attention and garnering that stimulation all day can become very exhausting.
So here’s my IKEA looking dinner table and white chair. It’s shoved in the corner of my kitchen apartment with no decorations, no unique positioning; all in all it’s nothing fancy. And it’s perfect.
Having a space so extremely un-stimulating is an escape. It allows me to recharge and lose focus on my surroundings.
I understand that many people find that their favorite place is somehow attached to a relationship with a friend, a set of fond memories, or an association with something they desire.
Not to go against the norm, but my favorite place doesn’t fulfill any of those things. It simply supplies an outlet for being stagnant temporarily during my essential morning routine.
Every morning, I go to a CrossFit class over on West Union starting at 5 in the morning. Upon returning home an hour later, I shower and throw on my robe to meander into the kitchen to prepare my typical breakfast: two pieces of peanut butter toast with an accompanying fruit and a bottle of water.
Once breakfast is prepared, I plop down in the white chair to sit in utter silence, sometimes even in the dark. I prefer usually no cell phone, and enjoy watching the sun rise diagonally from me as I bite into my toast.
You know, there’s comfort in knowing that I wish the sun good morning and not the other way around.
During the day, I rarely sit at the table as I’m still in my active state of mind. Frequently I eat lunch standing up in my kitchen and seem to pace partly due to my natural anxious nature and because I’m seemingly too busy to hit pause.
It’s typical for me to not revisit my favorite place until Friday night around 7 to 9pm. It’s the perfect location to hang with friends or to sit alone, blasting music and sharing a drink before heading out to the unmatched nightlife of Athens. My favorite place is the calm before the storm that allows me to take on the social intoxication that the night will soon provide.
I know some people favor restaurants and bars, university buildings, or outdoor excursions found throughout town. And though I am ultimately a fan of these places as well, I learned that sometimes the simple spots in your home are the most valuable.
As I’ve gotten older, I seem to have become very fond of locations that allow me to get lost and enjoy the 5% of down time during my day.
And for me, sometimes all I need is a simple table, a chair, and a quiet place to eat my peanut butter toast.
Walking up Court Street can be an overwhelming experience even for those who live in Athens. While there’s a lot to look at, the best places are hiding just out of sight. These restaurants and stores are like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts. These unique places seem to appear only when specifically needed. Here’s a look at the places that can be missed on a casual stroll.
So let’s do this, let’s go on an adventure to find the Holy Grail of Court Street stores.
This newly opened tattoo shop is at 8 North Court St. The actual shop is not visible from the street, but the sign is definitely on Court Street. The shop is actually in the alley behind Pita Pit. Do not feel uncomfortable walking down the short alleyway and then down a series of steps to get into this basement tattoo and piercing parlor. Also, be careful of the wind that can become fiercely powerful in the small space between brick buildings. Once the door is open, this spacious room will immediately bring comfort after the short, slightly sketchy walk away from Court Street.
Owner Shawn Hawks describes the location as the place “your mom tells you to avoid.” Hawks says the shop might be small, but it works. This is the first year Hawks has lived in Athens and it’s also Skin Hooked’s first year being open. He says he chose Athens because it is a hippie town and he wanted to be able to depend on walk-in customers from the university. Hawks brought his love of custom tattoos to Athens. He says he wants customers to have a good experience and leave with a smile.
The location is just off Court Street because the rent was lower than other places around Uptown Athens. He says an important part of his business is keeping prices low, which factored into his location decision. “The rent was low. We keep our overhead low and our prices down.”
There is only one thing he would change about the location, and that is the stairs. Any customer walking down the steps immediately grabs the handrail because they look perilous. Hawks says he cleans the stairs every day because the wind blows trash right into the store’s front door.
Even with the lack of visible storefront, 20-year veteran artist Hawks says getting customers to the store is not a problem. Hawks dedicates much of his budget to advertising to make up for lack of visibility. He has targeted his advertising to local college students by putting a coupon in this year’s Campus Special. Now students still come in with the coupon. Also news about the store has been passed on by word of mouth. Hawks says there is a lot of competition for the tattoo business in Athens, but he just wants customers to have a friendly experience.
Ski’s Teases and Collectibles is at 55 N Court St. This shop is famous for its T-shirts with creative slogans that are unique to Athens. The shop is located across the street from BP. The only clue the shop exists is the open sign that lights up the window of a basement door. Only a few steps separates the street from a basement shop full of collectibles and hundreds of different shirts.
Ohio University alumni Jerry Ski has had businesses in Athens in the past selling collectibles and comic books but did not move into the basement location on Court Street until 2002. The unique shirts Ski sells became popular by accident. Customers found the shirts in boxes in the store when Ski moved to his current location. The customers then asked if they were for sale. Ski takes credit for coining the name “Harvard on the Hocking” that has now become synonymous with Ohio University. Many of the T-shirts feature logos of current and old Court Street businesses. He personally designs and creates all the T-shirts he sells.
When asked why he picked a basement on Court Street, Ski answered, “There’s no other real estate in town that’s affordable.”
Ski does have problems with the current location beneath Court Street. He says persistent flooding does not allow him to set out all his collectible merchandise. The reason T-shirts have been an integral part of his business is they are not affected as much by basement flooding.
He also does not advertise, relying entirely on word of mouth. Ski says he wants people to have a unique experience in his store. There are definitely a large amount of unique items. Sitting behind the counter are a few of the collectibles Ski is able to display. One is a poster of President Obama opening his shirt to reveal a giant “O” like Superman. He says some students go through four years of college without realizing there are stores on Court Street other than bars and fast food restaurants.
Ski says a key to surviving so long in Athens is “going with the flow of things.” A lot of students buy T-shirts at his store and many come back after they graduate.
The last stop is also in a basement but this larger shop consists of a few small rooms filled to the brim with vintage clothing. Athens underground is located at 90 N Court St. The antique and vintage clothing store is across the street from Broney’s. The entrance is at the end of about 10 steep steps.
Here’s a warning to new customers: walking into this vintage clothing store might end in a sensory overload. The shop is full of costumes, clothing, records, jewelry and household items. There is no possible way to see everything in just one trip. Currently the biggest seller at the holiday time is the trend called Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Long racks full of sweaters sit at the front of the store attracting college students who wander in to find an outfit for their themed parties.
While sweaters take up the front of the store, the different rooms of Athens Underground are each divided into different categories. One room holds women’s clothing organized by style. Men’s clothing and a surprisingly large number of leather jackets take up another room. The most exciting room for many is the one full of vintage shoes.
Owner Barbara Stout grew up in Athens but left for a few years to join the vintage store scene in New York. Even she admits the storefront is not ideal, but all other locations available are too expensive.
She admits, “I’m hesitant myself to walk into places where you can’t see.” But once entering the store, customers see the large amount of interesting items available. Stout gets a lot of clothing directly from her connections in the city. She says, “I have a lot of new stuff from New York. I personally go and pick stuff out.”
Stout says it’s a struggle to get people to come into her store because no matter how hard she tries advertising does not seem to work. She uses a few different strategies like signs, Facebook and a display window in Court Street Coffee. Athens Underground has a strong Facebook page with nearly 5,000 likes. Since half of her customers are Internet-focused students, print advertising does not work well enough. She also has tried coupons but says the only time people use them is on Mom’s Weekend. Stout does say that like other retail owners, her most reliable form of advertisement is word of mouth.
It has been a struggle making it in a small town but Stout chalks up her success to stubbornness and perseverance. Stout says, “It’s not easy making a living from this town unless you’re selling beer.”
Let The Adventure Begin
Old or new, all these locally owned stores struggle to get past the lack of a visible storefront. Each is a treasure waiting to be discovered by visitors wanting to explore Athens or even students who have not taken the time to explore the center of culture for Ohio University life. Each store gives Athens the small town atmosphere that makes so many proud to call it home. Any adventurer will be sure to have memorable moments in each hidden gem.
Tori Knueven is a student at Ohio University studying broadcast journalism. She has a passion for British pop culture, especially Harry Potter, Dr. Who and Sherlock. While in school, she is a resident assistant in James Hall and also a producer and reporter for WOUB News. Spring semester, she will be in Washington, D.C., for an internship with the Scripps Howard Foundation.