"Down these mean streets, a man must go who is not himself mean."
During one particular, unhappy period of my life, I used to cross the street from the Y to the Village Green after my morning workout, and get a large coffee (and some sesame noodles, if I was feeling flush), and sit at the counter while I scribbled in my notebook.
The first refill was free; some days I'd go through four large cups. I'd mostly just write, alternating with long stretches of staring out the window. Sometimes I'd take a break to make a to-do list (top item of which was usually something on the lines of "GET JOB"). "The Green" was one of those large-ish, eclectic bookstores that you often used to find in urban to marginally-urban settings, featuring huge selections of magazines, unusual selection, and a section filled with some interesting food and candy.
And coffee. They always sold coffee, and as early as when I started visiting Rochester in the winter of '90/'91, it was good coffee -- not that crap that chain coffee shops dark-roast or pump full of artificial flavor to conceal its poor grade. Later, as they expanded in an attempt to compete with the suburban mega-bookstores, they added tables and chairs to go along with a new selection of pastries, cake, and vegetarian deli goods. They expanded their big suburban store in Pittsford; they built out their "flagship" store (really the much smaller of the two) to add a new CD store, trying to target the custom order market.
They went out of business not long after that, like a player at Risk who gambles on too rapid an expansion. It was a slow death-spiral, first rumored around the neighborhood, then heralded by the closure of the Pittsford store. As I saw it at the time, it was purely a matter of bad cost-containment: The wastage in their coffee shop operation was terrific. I counted one time, while I sat there, and noted that on any given weekday, they'd keep a dozen or more cakes, pies, torts and cheesecakes in the display case. At the end of the day, they might have completely consumed four or five of them. Still, they stubbornly insisted on keeping their food inventory until almost the end.
When the Green finally went under, they walked through and put price tags on everything: The books, the bookshelves, breadracks, refrigerated cases, anything that wasn't nailed down. Then one day, it closed, and was replaced a few weeks later by remaindered book wholesaler. He stayed for a month or two (probably sitting out the end of their lease), and then the space was closed. Half of the ground floor would be refurbished into a Pizza Hut; the old record area, upstairs, became a YMCA youth center; and the main building became a Hollywood Video.
It didn't take long for a succession of new coffee shops to open up, in a pair of buildings across the street and down a half-block. Neither lasted: The first was badly-managed and ahead of its time (an Internet cafe in 1997), and the second got knocked out cold when a Starbucks opened right across the street. Right between the sushi place and the trendy boutique, and across the alley from a cozy, carefully-hidden used bookstore called the Brown Bag, in a residential home that once housed a trendy wood-fired pizza place. (The Brown Bag used to be called the Oxcart, until its owners got out to write childrens books full time. That was something more than 15 years ago. It changed so little that lots of folks still call it the Oxcart.)
Starbucks is much busier than the Green ever was. In my gut, I don't know why; the Green was cheaper, their coffee better, their desserts were from the best dessert bakers in town. (Cheesy Eddie's carrot cake is pretty hard to beat.) Intellectually, of course, I know that people don't go to Starbucks with any conventional notion of value in mind. They go for an upscale version of that same ritualized sameness that Ray Kroc grokked: The beverage names are an incantation, a call-and-response to the baristas; the packaged and routinized baked goods are offerings to some god of status-through-commerce. I feel unclean whenever I go into a Starbucks, because I know that I'm in the temple of a faith to which I am apostate.
I've been to lots of coffee shops since then, and even spent a fair amount of time in one or two or three. But it's not the same. They're more expensive, and that's a big part of it. It's not that I'm cheap; it's that the cost starts to feel like an offering to those same gods of style, of status-through-commerce. It's a different sect, but it still feels like the same creed. Still, the coffee is good, the food is good, and the old Hallman Chevy building is fairly charming.
All of this is brought to mind this morning by an entry on the Daypop top 40: Delocator can help you find an independently-owned coffee shop near any US zip code. I don't see any near my zip code that I didn't already know about; it would be nice if they could take proximity arguments, which would let me see several more. But this is a pretty unusual area; we had "indie" coffee shops here before they were cool, and some of the best of them weren't proper coffee shops at all. Like the Green.