22 April 2012

Rising from the Ashes

It's been nearly two years now since I last posted here. I've spent much of that time mourning the loss of Webster's. It would be the second of my favorite local coffee shops that have fallen prey to hard times.

But good things are hard to kill, especially when they are vital parts of a community that desperately needs them. I doubt we'll see the Someday again because Somerville and Cambridge have so many other great local shops. But State College? State College is impoverished without a space that functions the way Webster's did.

Did I say "did"? I mean does.

Hard work, connections, and dedication have paid off and Webster's is back, bigger and better than ever. The store opened a week ago yesterday, and already it feels like a lived space. The reopening was a huge success; in spite of the shop's new location -- only a block away from its old location, but just outside the grand flow of foot traffic -- business is steady and growing. There are faces familiar and new, and the astonished gasps, the pleased murmurs as people discover or rediscover Webster's are more than comforting: they are a kind of homecoming.

A good coffee shop is more than just a coffee shop. And the convergence of people and good will in this last week proves that Webster's is far more than a bookstore/cafe. It's a community.

Welcome back, Webster's.

22 July 2010

The last hour

Tomorrow my partner and I leave town for a few days -- and while we are away, the old Webster's on Allen will close its doors until it gets a new downtown home. There's something surreal about being somewhere you know is going to disappear, about being in a place for the last time -- and knowing this fact. It's hard not to feel nostalgic. There's an almost unavoidable need to load the final moments with a significance they might not otherwise have: another day at the old hangout with nothing special going on suddenly becomes a blurry Polaroid of old friends saying goodbye pinned to the fridge with a souvenir magnet. Once in a while you take it down and look at it and sigh.

It's hard to resist the temptation to document this last hour. The doors haven't locked yet, the books are still on the shelves, the toaster is still plugged in, the wireless is still up and running. For all intents and purposes, it's just another Thursday afternoon at Webster's in the summer. Things are slow. The café staff have caught up on their work. No one stands in line. A handful of regulars are scattered throughout the store, doing what they always do: reading, surfing the 'net, talking. The book staff are in the midst of their usual business, the tasks that always mystified me, thinking in the secret language of books.

Time has come nearly to a standstill. The only thing that marks its passage is the slow saunter of the occasional patron across the floor, the progression of songs on Pandora, the lazy spin of the Stax of Trax Records sign. As always, there are countless fliers below the counter, some of them ancient and torn, others brand new. Cookies and teas sit in glass jars. A couple flip through the records, hoping to find some treasure. A man browses the books, letting curiosity lead him around the shelves.

It's nothing magical. Or is it?

I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is I'm going to miss about this place. Elaine recently noted that Webster's isn't the building, but the people who fill it. And in a way she's right: it's the convergence of this continually changing group of people that makes Webster's a social force in the community. But as a geographer, I can't help but think about the importance of space and location in the identity of this place. I won't just miss the assortment of people here (and many of them make strange bedfellows indeed), but also its relationship to other locations I frequent, the many paths I take to get here from different points in town.

I'm learning from this. I'm learning that everyday life isn't just about static destinations; it's also about our movements between them. Movement brings space for thought, anticipation, anxiety, meditation. What I will miss about Webster's isn't just the place itself, but the ways I have organized my practices around it, the ways it has changed my experience of life in this town, the ways that this space and I stand in relation to one another.

Time's almost up. In twenty minutes I'll walk out the back door, and by the time I return that door will be locked. I'm going to go live it now.

21 July 2010


Last week I noticed a young man sitting at the table beyond mine. About twenty or thirty minutes passed before he was joined by a woman of about the same age. They were meeting about something, planning some kind of gathering. They talked about how to fund the event for a bit before turning to the subject of its location. The conversation went something like this:
Man: "It's on Walnut Street, this little street that even the locals don't know exist. It's off [street name deleted]."
Woman: "Walking north or south up [street name]?"
Man [gesturing broadly]: "Uh, that way."
Woman [suppressing an eye roll]: "Okay, south down [street name]."
It was a brilliant reversal of traditional gender norms. Only at Webster's.

11 July 2010

The politics of local

Ever since the news hit that Webster's Bookstore Café in downtown State College is facing eviction and quite possibly its end, a lot of people have been saying a lot of things. A number of news stories have surfaced, activist groups have formed, and the community in general has rallied around the store with petitions, protests, and letters of support.*

The response has been overwhelming to say the least. I've watched as a mix of emotions have played across the faces of owner Elaine Meder-Wilgus and her employees -- sadness, anger, fear, and in fleeting moments, hope. I've watched as the petitions have circulated and impassioned regulars have announced meetings. I've watched the comments pile up on the support pages on Facebook -- some of them touching, some of them despondent, and some of them hopelessly misinformed. If anything is clear in this situation, it's that there are people who want Webster's to survive -- and these supporters cut across racial, socioeconomic, occupational, political, and sexual lines. There are Borough Council members and university professors, locals and students all fighting to keep this space open -- each and every one of them a regular with a real understanding of just how important Webster's is to the community.

I am concerned, however, that these efforts -- as moving and well-intentioned as they are -- have the potential to make things worse. A recent commentary in VOICES of Central PA (made by Joel Solkoff, a regular who is equally invested in saving the business) accused some of the supporters of being unfocused. This same commentary blasted the store's owner for failing to meet with an attorney, for choosing to liquidate her books rather than fight to stay in the space, and for being a "rotten businesswoman" in general. With all due respect to the author, I feel a need to raise some counterpoints to his commentary. To begin with, let's add some context to the story:
  1. The landlord informed the owner that he wanted Webster's to vacate the store just before the July 4 holiday. The news wasn't made public until July 5th.
  2. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts began on July 7th and went through today (July 11th).
As anyone familiar with State College is aware, it is well nigh impossible to get anything of any importance done between the holiday and Arts Fest. Local businesses are swamped during the festivities -- and Webster's was no exception. I am a bit puzzled by Mr. Solkoff's criticism of Elaine for not having met with an attorney during this period. I have been at the store almost every day since the news broke, and I've seen the incredible amount of work Elaine has been doing. To suggest that she is somehow irresponsible or remiss is, frankly, to miss the mark.

In the onrush of support from the community, Elaine has had to make a number of difficult decisions in a short amount of time with limited access to legal and financial offices because of the annual festivities. Mr. Solkoff questions Elaine's business sense and her decision to liquidate her stock of books, yet it's a decision that makes perfect sense given the circumstances. With only 30 days to vacate (an order that is firm, according to the news outlets), financial difficulties, and a warehouse full of books across the street, liquidating the store's stock during Arts Fest was a wise decision.

In a sense, the timing of the landlord's order -- and Elaine's decision to sell off the books -- couldn't have been better: it allowed for a critical mass of supporters to come together and take advantage of the mass influx of people to State College to sign petitions, offer their reflections on the store, and make their dollars count. In the two years I've been frequenting Webster's, I have never seen lines of such epic proportions at the book counter as I have over the last five days. I wonder whether her decision to liquidate during Arts Fest has generated more cash for the store than it might have with business as usual -- hopefully some hard numbers will be released that can clarify this.

Mr. Solkoff's comments imply that Elaine has not made any efforts to contact an attorney. I'm not convinced this is actually the case. It is unclear whether Mr. Solkoff made an effort to contact Elaine directly to ask her whether she's contacted an attorney. With no quoted sources to verify his assertion, it comes across as an unfair -- and unsupported -- accusation. Elaine has repeatedly asked the store's supporters not to vilify the landlord; perhaps we should also be asking people not to vilify the business owner by failing to provide factual context for their statements.

Mr. Solkoff also lambastes Elaine for complying with the landlord's orders rather than immediately resisting them, and for considering finding an alternate space for the store. He says:
Joan of Arc did not say, when she was fighting to save France, “If this does not succeed, maybe we can relocate to the old Verizon building, across the street from the State College municipal building.” Elaine’s initial instinct to get rid of the books in her store and talk about an alternate location is a mistake. You do not give up a battle before you have lost it. Now, the bookstore reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem Old Ironsides, “The harpies of the shore shall pick / The eagle of the sea.”
It's a wonderful, poetic sentiment that works in theory. The problems with it are that:
  1. it assumes Elaine had the time necessary to look for legal assistance regarding what, again, seems to be a very firm decision from the landlord,
  2. it assumes that Elaine would want to keep the business in its current location in the wake of the landlord's orders (which, I would think, would put a strain on landlord-tenant relations, even if there were some magical solution that would allow the store to stay in its current location),
  3. it assumes that Elaine has the legal and financial resources to fight the decision in the first place, and
  4. it fails to take into account the time-sensitive nature of the circumstances -- 30 days notice to vacate, 11 of which were lost to the holiday and Arts Fest.
I doubt Joan of Arc was under such time pressure. Moreover, as I understand it, Joan of Arc had access to a hell of a lot more resources than Elaine does right now.

Mr. Solkoff and I agree on one point: there is some disorganization here, and that disorganization runs the risk of destroying Webster's' chances for survival. The resistance has a huge task before it: it must come up with an organized and carefully detailed plan of action. And it seems to be happening. People are fielding suggestions, researching financial options, and offering ideas about where to relocate and how to use the resources that are available. But if that doesn't come together in a single, clear plan that Elaine agrees to -- a plan that provides some measure of financial stability -- then we all risk losing Webster's.

I believe it is time to take a hard look at the business as it stands. Numbers have to be made available, and even more difficult decisions will have to be made based on them. For example, it might be worth consolidating the business back into a single downtown space (and if that's the case, we have to consider the needs not only of the 12 employees of the Allen Street store, but also those at Aaron Drive and at the warehouse). Any plan to move forward must be holistic: if the organizers want to save the downtown store, then they have to consider the interplay of finances and operations across locations.

I understand that Mr. Solkoff himself feels strongly in favor of keeping Webster's alive (and on Allen Street). As with the other community organizers, I feel his heart is in the right place. And I certainly commend him for raising the points he raises. I agree with him that more factual information needs to be available before a real plan can be put into place -- but I believe those facts should come directly from Elaine and her attorney. If nothing else is clear, there are a great many people dedicated to saving Webster's. I think there are a lot of great ideas out there, and while I am grateful to Mr. Solkoff for injecting a modicum of realism into the movement, I fear his curious mix of fact and poetry does more harm than good.

For what it's worth, here is my suggestion to everyone involved in the efforts to save the store (organizer and journalist alike): let's stop pointing fingers altogether. Let's roll up our sleeves, get our facts straight, look at the numbers, and make the hard decisions. And once those decisions are made, let's show up with dollars and bodies. Because god knows we need them.

* Here is a list of postings from the Centre Daily Times; there are not one, but two Facebook groups dedicated to the cause here and here; the Daily Collegian has posted a number of stories; VOICES of Central PA, which has a real stake in Webster's has been active from the beginning; even the local NPR station, WPSU, has aired a story about the situation.

05 July 2010


I am stricken. I am at a loss. A recent entry mourned my long-lost Someday Café, and with this one I begin mourning my current regular haunt, my home-away-from-home, the place I jokingly refer to as my living room. It is the end of an era for this little town. There are two independent coffee shops in town, and soon there will be one. What's worse is that this one is not just a coffee shop, but also (and primarily) a bookstore -- combining the best things in life in a single space. Its loss is a blow to this town and coffee culture both.

I'm a geographer by training (these days at least); understanding the importance of space and place is my trade. People talk about the loss of businesses -- especially local businesses like this one -- in terms of their economic impact, but they often fail to overlook the vital non-economic functions they play. So in my own little way I want to demonstrate just what it is this town is losing. Let us rewind for a moment, forget that loss is imminent, and pretend that it's business as usual.

There are characters here. At this table, there's a sweet young couple in love, holding hands, making eyes at one another, pretending that no one else in the world can see them (when, of course, they can). They whisper to each other, giggle, go back to reading, look up after a moment and smile at one another. Strangely, none of this is as obnoxious as it sounds; it's genuinely sweet, almost innocent. This, my friends, is a rarity in life -- and yet it happens here.

At another table, there's a young woman sitting with a friend. A guy in a tee-shirt, bike shorts and a cycling cap approaches, engages them in conversation. He is ten or fifteen years their senior, but the exchange is not awkward; they all know each other. They met here. They are joined by another guy, briefly -- a short bespectacled fellow dressed in patchwork pants who has stopped in between jobs. After a while, the cyclist takes his to-go cup outside and sits in one of the chairs. He doesn't work until evening. He has all day to just be. Eventually the young woman and her friend part ways. They have classes to attend.

Here, there's a guy in his mid-late-twenties pacing. He does this. He orders a drink, slowly walks the length of the store, steps outside for a smoke, and makes his way back out the front door. He occupies another of the chairs outside, takes out another cigarette. He will do this several times today. If you're lucky he might speak to you in astonishingly good French. If you're not, you'll catch him sleeping on a couch all the way in the back of the store. Sleeping is strictly not allowed, but it happens. He's good at it.

At one of the other high tables up front, there's a guy painting miniatures. He brings them in every Saturday. A box of paints partly hides his work from view, but he's always game to talk about them if you ask. He's a curious fellow, quick to join in any one of the conversations going on up front. For better or for worse, everything is public here.

There are engineers and astronomers, geographers and sociologists, students of English and German and philosophy. There are practitioners of medicine sipping coffee, artists drawing quietly, hipsters comparing notes on music venues. There are conversations about sexuality and gender, religion and politics, physics and linguistics. Someone has brought up the FIFA World Cup on his laptop, is watching a game live. No one looks like anyone else. The people are tall and short, thin and thick, black and white and brown. Some wear skinny jeans, it's true -- but others wear flowered prints or polo shirts. Some of them are tattooed and pierced. Others are not.

If the people here share anything in common, it's that they simply don't belong in that bland, whitewashed, equalized universe in which humans seem cut from a single mold in body, style, aspiration, and orientation (political, sexual, moral: take your pick). They stand in stark contrast to the clean lines and fresh paint and slick stylings of Corporate America. They want something local. They're not perfect. They don't always smell nice. They aren't always charming and debonair. They have bad days. But in the end they see something of value here.

Lest you think I'm being rosy about this, let me assure you: they don't all like each other. One of the best things about this place is that for all the diversity of knowledge, there's also a diversity of opinion. You can tell that for any patron, there's at least one other who gets on her nerves. But that's okay: no one is rude about it. People just accept it. I suspect they have all, perhaps unconsciously, come to the conclusion that we all have an equal share in this place. With enough courtesy, most things can be forgiven -- or at least tolerated.

There is a false dichotomy that seems to pervade society concerning that which is public and that which is private. For example, we think of our abodes as private space, and yet there are laws that govern and regulate the condition in which they can be kept. Likewise, a business like this one is surely a private thing -- the owner can, at any time, ask any of us to leave without any real reason. And yet this space is so very public in so many ways. We waltz in like we own the place. We make ourselves comfortable, interact with others as though the space belongs to us, and yes, we judge one another. Somehow it all works.

This is public culture. This is what we are losing. We cannot default to The Chain when this place we love is gone.

Years ago I was of the opinion that if you treated everyone like equals, inequality would disappear. I was operating under the false assumption that we all start from a level playing field. This was a piece of youthful naivete on my part (and I blame Iris Marion Young for opening my eyes to the importance of recognizing difference). The truth is, systems that attempt to impose equality on people by doling out equal slices of whatever pie it is they're doling out miss the mark. You can assume that we are all born equally valuable -- but you cannot assume that our needs are equal, or that we all become interchangeable parts. Life doesn't work like that. We are all modded, and we are all modded differently. That's the beauty of it.

And that's why The Chain -- in its soulless neutrality and its carefully measured slices of pie -- just doesn't work for us. In The Chain, public culture is stifled because we are no longer allowed to recognize difference. Overlook it, says The Chain. Overlook the qualities that make them all a little different, concentrate only on the universals. Don't let on that you know they're unique; that invites disaster.

It is this mentality, incidentally, that leads to practices like the over-roasting and over-brewing of coffee to the point where it's a bitter, burnt disaster of a beverage. Because over-roasting and over-brewing ensure consistency -- and consistency is integral to the imposition of this punitive version of equality The Chain peddles. Extend that from coffee to culture and you see the source of my sadness.

I don't know where we will all go in the end, but my gut feeling tells me that things won't be the same. In losing this place, we are losing a piece of the community. It's a place where misfits of various kinds can gather. In its time here it has served as a space for fostering the development of friendships, activism, intellectual growth, art, and academic collaboration. It has brought together a number of small local businesses that have few other visible outlets. It has provided a unique environment where the patrons felt a sense of ownership (frustrating as it may be for the staff) strong enough to allow us to interrogate one another, and to experience the fast-dying spark of public life.

Humans are remarkably adaptable, it's been said a thousand times. We'll all find other outlets for collaboration and socializing. But none of them will be quite like this one.

05 June 2010


Overheard in my regular haunt just now:
Young guy: Even if I never do a comic, I'd be happy working as a freelance illustrator... I'd be happy living a modest life...
His friend: I think that's what people always say at our age.
Heh. Funny 'cause it's true.

Synergy, or something like it

Summer is here and life has slowed down, and I'm back to frequenting -- and thinking about -- coffee shops. It's a bad habit, I'll admit it.

I collect them, you see. Everywhere I go, I have to visit at least one independently owned coffee shop. Over the last few months I've been to several, in a few different cities -- Montreal, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Albany, NY -- in addition to my regular haunt. There are a couple that stand out as favorites: Caffè Art Java in Montreal, for example, or Tryst in Washington, DC. And they're great spots! The lure of people watching at Art Java is hard to resist, and the fact that you can buy alcohol at Tryst makes it a perfect evening hangout.

But there's one -- a time-honored favorite of mine -- that I've really been missing lately: the Someday Café in Somerville, MA. By some accounts it was a run-down, filthy, cliquey shop frequented by too many homeless people. By others it was a quirky, cool, edgy place that served as a seat of hope for artists and activists in Davis Square at the height of its hipness (much to my dismay, recent reports suggest that the hipness is fading away as business and activist alike are priced out and flee for the safety of the mothership of bohemian life, NYC).

I'm thinking back, trying to remember just why I loved the Someday so much. Maybe it was the storefront -- great big windows looking out onto Davis Square. Maybe it was its location beside the Somerville Theatre (which, at the time I knew it, was more of an art house joint than it seems to be these days). Or maybe it was just the vibe in Davis Square at the time.

Before I slip too far into the misty realms of nostalgia, I want to offer one thought: maybe (just maybe) what made it so great wasn't the combination of second-hand furniture, graffiti-covered bathrooms, local artists, and late hours. What the Someday had going for it wasn't just its fortunate accident of location, but also the peculiar combination of people who frequented it -- and the way people used the space. It wasn't unusual to see people playing chess or checkers, artists drawing for hours while their coffee went cold, and meeting after meeting of book clubs, gamers, and activists. I won't say that everyone coexisted peacefully, but most were respectful of one another.

Most importantly: if there was tension between the communities whose paths crossed there, that tension only seemed to fuel their relative desires to Do Great Things, even if those Great Things would have worked at cross purposes (though in my memory, that was rarely the case). I think, in short, what the Someday did best was harness the power of Being Seen that coffee shops tend to cultivate -- and turn it into a constructive, collective force.

And so a much belated R.I.P., Someday Café. No shop can replace you, but your spirit lives on. I'll be looking for it.

29 March 2010


Sometimes I must remember that wobbly, spill-inducing tables and tight, labyrinthine floor layouts are part of what make coffee shops magical, wonderful, charming places.

Bad music, however, is unforgivable.