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.


  1. Excellent post. You really captured what Webster's is all about.

  2. For at least an hour each morning for the past week, I've read tributes to Webster's but this one stands out.

    I'm finding fewer and fewer reasons to head downtown these days. I can't see walking across campus to get corporate coffee or a corporate pretzel and to return home smelling like abercrombie & fitch. And where will I see new and interesting artwork? Guess I'll have to head to the medical center lobby or the gallery at Foxdale Village.

  3. Thanks, Dave!

    Kim, I'm right there with you. This whole situation is sad to say the least. One of the things I love about Webster's is that it supports so many local artists I wouldn't see otherwise.

    Here's hoping the DID and the Penn State Small Business Development Center can really help out...