In Praise of Coffee Shops

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . . .”

–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

8:00 AM on Thursday morning. “Good morning, Froddy,” I say, initiating the daily ritual.

“Mornin’!” Froddy responds, with a mischievous grin curling his lined mouth.

Today, instead of his usual red bandana, he is wearing a blue bandana, neatly tied by feminine hands and tucked into his more than usually cozy sweater. It is raining outside, after all. This also explains the round rimmed hat. Froddy is European (Norwegian to be exact), so his choice in headware is more fashionable than the ordinary 85 year old.

“And how are you this morning?” I say, with a tilt of my head. I know perfectly well how he is, but I ask anyway.

This is my favorite part.

Froddy rocks back on his heels, places his hands confidently on the belly-pockets of his sweater, and beams.

“I’m charming, witty, handsome, and not so wise.”

His grin erupts into a toothy smile at his routine punchline, and he rocks forward again on his feet. He glances over his shoulder to the table in the corner where his effervescently noble wife always sits, as if to see if she has shared in the fun. Subdued for a moment by the sight of her white haired glory, he turns back to me.

“A Zoey and a Froddy, please” he says. We do the usual choreography: he hands me seven dollars, I hand him change, he hands me his wife’s hand sewn cup sleeve, and tips me one dollar. The metaphorical sandglass tips, marking the countdown of another 24 hours till ritual begins again.

Oh, by the way. A Zoey and a Froddy roughly translate to two small cappuccinos.

These sorts of interactions are the warp and woof of working at a local coffee shop. Several months ago, I surprised myself and most other people in my life with the decision to take a year off before heading off to grad school. I decided I wanted to take a year to earn some money, pray, read some poetry, and love my neighbor. Sometimes I laugh at myself: working at a coffee shop after graduating college is exactly what one is not supposed to do. And yet, as I find myself serving the Froddys, Cathys, Dans, and Harrys of my community, I have come to realize that coffee shops are much more than just a place to feed our cultural addiction to caffeine.

Coffee shops are living, breathing places that shape and nurture the culture of a local community.

It takes a village to run a coffee shop. In our little shop alone I can think of more than a dozen local (Denver-Colorado Springs) bakers, roasters, artists, and cooks that contribute to creating the food, drinks, atmosphere, and —perhaps most importantly— coffee that make our shop our shop. From the Denver based coffee roasters, to the expert baker, to the local artist whose paintings hang on our wall, the shop I work at is like a gallery of local talent of every kind. An added benefit to the local nature of the products is that it is much easier to ensure that the products you are consuming are ethically sourced and healthfully produced. The shop draws on the best of the community and creates a place for locals to give to their community. From policy to sourcing, larger chains simply cannot create this kind of interdependence with their communities. Larger chains cannot depend on the talent of their community because they bring their own resources into whatever places they establish shops.

While larger chains push out the need for local business, local shops create a platform and market for it.

The shop creates a revolving door for the creativity of our community.

But it also sets a table for people of all walks of life.

My favorite part by far of working at the shop is the great cloud of characters that pass through our doors.

There are two retired navy men who come in every morning at 6 a.m. One gets a small mug of coffee, and one a salmon bagel.

There is the weary mother and her pink-cheeked imps. She hopes hot chocolates all round (and a mocha for her) will put everyone in a better mood.

There is the nervous young fiancé taking his soon-to-be wife’s younger sister out for coffee for the first time.

There is the quiet and furtive author— large latte— who has written several manuscripts in the corner table.

There is the group of warm and well dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of them—the tall one with the green boots— always orders a scotch egg.

There is the aspiring celtic mythology scholar (large black americano) taking tiny notes in his tiny notebook.

The be-tied and be-suited pastor grabbing his pre-sermon coffee.

There is the New York born Irishman (small Irish Breakfast tea) come to meet his four ex-cop friends every week, feigning a bad mood, but involuntarily sparkling behind his old eyes.

There is the smartly dressed young business woman (chicken salad-balsamic) on her break from work.

Oh, how many stories pass through our doors. I often ask people how their days are going, and they often surprise themselves with answering me honestly. Unspeakable joys and sorrows have been told to me over the counter . . .

“My child is going to jail.”

“I’m getting married in less than a week.”

“I’m here for my father-in-law’s funeral.”

“I’m interviewing in town for a job.”

“I’m trying to convince my daughter to move home from Scotland.”

I cannot think of another venue where as many diverse people would voluntarily assemble themselves. But this place with open arms and warm coffee invites all in, and as the parades of people come in, in their wild diversity of colors, communities, and creeds, I marvel at the profundity of each story and the humor and beauty of each individual life.

Our lives these days are prone to isolation. We live in our little boxes alone. We drive in our little wheeled boxes alone. We use self service when possible. Modern life is shaped upon individualism and independence. This means we also often carry our burdens and celebrate our joys individually and interdependently, and what a grief that is.

But in my little shop, the modern spell is broken for a moment as I meet the eyes of the Froddys, Cathys, Dans, and Harrys, and hear about their day, give them their coffee, and laugh at their jokes. The shop is shaped by the people who pass through its doors. A coffee shop is so much more than a place of consumers; it is a place of community.

Coffee shops are small havens of community in a world of isolation.

So I rejoice every morning when Froddy tells me his joke. I pray for his dear wife in her health issues. And I thank God for this unexpected gift of a community.

Oh, and I may be prejudiced, but I think we have the best coffee in town.

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