On the first Saturday of each month, downtown Akron businesses open their doors to the public during the monthly Akron Artwalk.

Nearly 50 galleries, restaurants, live music venues, local artisans and retailers join their proverbial forces to show folks what downtown has to offer.

Like many folks who live in the area, I had visited several downtown businesses but had never experienced Akron Artwalk, which happens this week from 5 to 10 p.m. on Saturday.

April’s walk took place on a lovely, shiny evening, but beware: the walks take place on the first Saturday of each month, rain, shine or snow. Most businesses have pamphlets provided by Downtown Akron Partnership with all the listed stops. It might be a good idea for you and your crew (definitely take a fun date or a group of friends) to plot your course, or at least pick a general direction before you start your walk.

For me, a good starting place was Uncorked Wine Bar and Gallery on North High Street, and not just because of the free hors d’oeuvres. There was a raw, honest exhibit featuring local photographer Jeani Brechbill’s photographic series — based around Canton’s Refuge of Hope Ministry, which provides food for the hungry and emergency shelter for homeless men in need.

The exhibit featured a very real and affecting series of large portraits of folks, singles, couples and small families who come to Refuge of Hope.

After the Artwalk, Brechbill, a University of Akron photography major and budding professional photographer, said although she hadn’t sold anything, the exposure and conversations were good.

“A big advantage for me having [a show] during the Artwalk was just the number of people that came in and approached me about how they enjoyed the photographs and how it made them feel. It was really nice to get outsiders in to see my work,” she said.

Staying in the “historical cultural district” also known as the East Market and North High streets area, I walked across East Market to Summit Artspace, which turned out to be a busy three floors of activity and artistry from the official Summit Artspace Gallery on the first floor to Girls on the Run of Greater Summit on the second floor, which helps elementary- and middle-school-aged girls learn self-confidence and run.

The third floor features more artists and the Crafty Mart, aka “the idiosyncratic fair,” which since February has been adding about 20 of its vendors to the top floor of the Artspace during each month’s Artwalk. The Crafty Mart pop up was a cornucopia of artisans and their homemade stuff to peruse.

Crafty Mart director Brit Charek said the Artwalk version of Crafty Mart has introduced the nonprofit organization and its affiliated artists to a new audience.

“I thought it was our civic duty to be a part of it. I know that’s a diplomatic answer, but we also want to tap into a new market. … People coming in who had never seen Crafty Mart, but when they come in their eyes just light up. ‘What is all this stuff?’?”? Charek said.

“So it’s kind of a way for us to become engaged with the regular downtown experience. That’s something we want to bring to our audience but also something we want to feed off of. And it seems like something that allows us to have a monthly presence downtown,” he continued.

So far, the plan seems to be working because despite the relatively early hour of my visit, the Crafty Mart and the surrounding businesses along the wall in the building were hustling with a dash of bustling, curious folks including Amy Beitzel of Akron, who enlisted her friend Barbara Rowe of Uniontown to check out the Artwalk.

“I’ve been wanting to do it for a while and trying to make a concerted effort to get out and enjoy a revitalized downtown,” Beitzel said. “I’m loving the Nightlight Cinema and trying to get into more of the stuff down here.”

Beitzel said she has long been down on living in the city because, “I always felt like there was nobody here that liked the things that I did,” she said. “I’m excited because I was born and raised here and in the ’70s and ’80s there was nothing down here and then in the ’90s there was all those sketchy dance clubs, and now it’s like there’s nerdy artsy people here who are awesome.”

Both Beitzel and Rowe were on their first Akron Artwalk.

“I’m getting some good exercise, it’s free and entertaining and we’re just going to wander from spot to spot because we’ve never done it before and don’t know really what all it has to offer,” Rowe said.

There was an interesting variety of stuff on the third floor — everything from the Tea Dude peddling his special blends of loose leaf teas and tea bags including Chillout and Black Peppermint Sun tea, to (former Beacon Journal reporter) Connie Bloom’s Quilting Arts Studio that features art quilts and quilting classes, and Elizabeth Brandt’s handmade bandannas for dogs (and perhaps agreeable cats) under the name Paw Kids.

“I like it here. It’s a very diverse crowd,” the Brooklyn-based Brandt said, noting that in her three years in business, she’s found that dog-owning, space-movie nerds apparently cross all social and economic boundaries.

“All the Star Wars and Star Trek stuff is popular,” Brandt said while holding up a bandanna emblazoned with Darth Vader’s helmet, an Imperial Tie Fighter in mid-flight and the Star Wars logo.

“I never stop buying either of those fabrics,” she added.

Along for the ride

After traipsing around the historical cultural district, I hopped on the trolley that runs for free during the Artwalk hours and headed over to the Northside district to see what else was happening and what other businesses might offer free hors d’oeuvres and wine.

The trolley comes approximately every 20 minutes, though art walkers are encouraged to flag down the driver and ask to be taken to a spot or simply ride the trolley round-trip and get to know your fellow art fans.

On the way to the Northside district, I ran into Ryan Dyke and Ben Arrington, a pair of buddies from Cuyahoga Falls who are also members of the local cover band Copper Pennies. They are also the voices behind the Spoils of Akron Podcast with help from the Akron Digital Media Center, which is about the city’s art and culture scene and is available on iTunes.

Dyke and Arrington were on the trolley gathering business cards to help populate their show and to immerse themselves in the scene, talking to some of the city’s “eccentric residents” such as the man who makes beard oils (who was at the Crafty Mart).

“It’s cool, I bought this pin! I almost bought a bow tie with Batman on it. I couldn’t help myself, Ben had to drag me out of there,” Dyke said.

I left the trolley and went into the Zeber-Martell Clay Studio and Gallery on Furnace Street where there was plenty of jewelry, glass and ceramic ware as well as fresh strawberries and a complimentary glass of wine (Score!) while a mixed generation jazz group of high school students and grown folks performed.

Upstairs in Artwalls at 43 Furnace, dancers Brian Murphy and Mary-Elizabeth Fenn performed in a room with about 40 spectators, including bearded hipsters, a couple decked out in fashionable camouflage and trucker hats, and some tattooed folks in sparkly shirts and knee-high boots. While the pair danced, singer/songwriter Rachel Shortt provided the soundtrack with her acoustic rendition of The Beatles’ Blackbird, followed by an original song.

Moseying across the street to the Akron Glass Works, we saw a man working with hot glass while assistants scurried around and children on the other side of the glass in the small viewing room offered oohs, ahhs and questions. Erin Vlahos of Akron and Noel Aker, a recent transplant from Louisville, Ky., to North Canton, had come downtown to see a show at Musica and had already enjoyed a pre-show meal at Luigi’s.

“I’m always interested in arts districts and things like that,” Aker said, noting he was born in Northeast Ohio but doesn’t really know Akron as an adult.

“I’m used to Akron and I went to Akron U, so I’m used to downtown, but this is cool,” Vlahos said.

Finally, I made my way to Jilly’s Music Room where Jeff Polous and Scott Grewell were celebrating Bill Withers’ rock hall induction with an acoustic take on his Ain’t No Sunshine and The Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There before hopping on the trolley once again to take me back to the beginning (and my car).

For people in outlying cities and nearby counties who for some reason may still think of downtown Akron as a dangerous place or an industrial wasteland and ghost town, the Akron Artwalk is a quick and fun way to disabuse yourself or your friends and loved ones of that notion.

The crowds are fun, the artists and artisans are helpful and friendly, and it may surprise some folks how much talent lives and works in the heart of Akron.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml and/or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.