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The only street-level sign of Durham’s takeover of 104-108 E. Main St. is this sticker on the mailbox.

CafePress founder Fred Durham retired for a solid two years. He says the first year was great but the second year “got pretty long.”

Ever since last fall, when he appeared to emerge from retirement, we’ve been chasing the story: “Just what is Durham up to, anyway?” We’ve heard rumors (restaurant incubator!) and taken some guesses. We got some things right (he’s hired GlowTouch’s Weston Hagen!). And not so right (another LVL1!).

But we’ve also been patient. And this week, Durham finally invited us to take a tour of… well, his own little mini startup city.

And let me tell you, when Durham pulls this all together this fall-ish (notice I didn’t say “if”), it’s going to be pretty awesome. Not only does Durham have the money and the background to basically will things into being, but he’s also sitting on some seriously prime real estate, smack next door to the future home of the Aloft Hotel.

photo 4The two-story building used to be a whiskey barrel storage warehouse in the late 1800s. (Durham says barrel storage warehouses are an excellent real estate investment because they’re built rock solid.) Its most recent incarnation was home to Prime Lounge and DeVino’s Deli.

The old DeVino’s space will be a restaurant. But Durham doesn’t know what kind yet. “I’m not being coy,” he insists. He’s “trying things out, looking for something that can scale.”

What does that mean? Durham wants to start a restaurant that can be the first of a chain. He said that Louisville is a good place to make that happen, what with Yum! and Papa John’s and all. He says it plays to our strengths. Louisville could be an attractor for chain HQs, he says, but it’s unlikely we’re ever going to become an attractor for “phone app creators.” “We’re just not special in that way.”

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Renovation under way at the old DaVinos

As far as being a “logistics town,” Durham says he moved CafePress to Louisville when they were an $80 million a year revenue company. “Logistics isn’t a concern until you’re not a startup anymore.”

But food. We’re good at food.

“I like food,” says Durham. “Do you like food?”

“Of course,” I answer.

“Everyone likes food.”

The Prime Lounge side of the building will house a coffee shop that will also serve wood-fired pizzas and possibly beer and wine at night. The front will have counter service, and in the back there will be lots of places to plug in and work. He mentioned printers … 3-D printers. “It’s a place to explore things.” He’s already partnered with someone who’s going to run the coffee shop, and the side patio will get a makeover.

The side patio that will lead to Durham Labs.

The side patio that will lead to Durham Labs.

And that side patio leads to a separate two-story building in back that is the future home of Durham Labs. “I want to play with food and robots. Because I like them,” he says. So, Durham Labs? That’s the “robot part.” More on that on Monday.

(Sneak preview: Durham Labs is alive and thriving in an apartment upstairs from the former DaVino’s. It’s been trucking along since last fall and now has seven employees plus Durham.)

Upstairs from the old Prime Lounge renovations are under way to create four offices or spaces for artists and craftspeople.

Overall, 104-108 E. Main St. lets Durham play with 14,000 square feet on the most historic street in Louisville.

Durham founded CafePress in San Mateo, Calif., in 1999 with Maheesh Jain. Durham sold CafePress right before it went public. He came to Louisville to transition the business to the new CEO, Bob Marino, and ended up falling in love with the city. He completed the transfer and then moved his wife and children to Louisville.

He’s obviously here to stay.