Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bucolic baristas.

The coffeehouse isn’t just a destination for the bohemians these days. Long a mainstay in big cities, coffeehouses are visible now across all types of settings, from urban street corners to suburban or small-town strip malls, from tiny kiosks in parking lots to the exits of interstate highways. They have joined the ranks of 24/7 fitness centers, tarot card readings, spas, check cashing stores, tanning salons, and pet salons. Among this motley crew of retailers, coffeehouses may reign supreme: all of the above outlets have transcended their niche markets to become popular in just about any setting, metropolitan or small town—but coffeehouses have enjoyed widespread popularity far longer than most of the others, suggesting that their current visibility is not some ephemeral fad. (The verdict isn’t out on 24/7 fitness centers.)

It’s difficult to determine how much beat culture really fueled the initial curiosity and eventual popularity of coffeehouses. My guess is the influence is small. Jack Keruoac may have claimed that coffee surpassed Benzedrine and everything else, for that matter, for “real power kicks” [at least according to Howard Cunnell’s introduction to On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007, p. 24)], but it would be a stretch to think that such a diverse array of Americans visit coffeehouses—or drink coffee, for that matter—in pursuit of an artistic or psychological high. No, Americans visit “coffee shops” (the preferred term on this side of the Atlantic) for their ability to govern space under new parameters, much the reason beat writers enjoyed them 40 years ago. Coffee shops offer an expansive flexibility for human socialization with few time constraints, either overtly or unconsciously, and they achieve this usually without the concomitant alcohol-induced raucousness one might usually find in a bar. You can pick up a drink to go and carry it legally down the street with you. Or you can sit inside and sip for hours. Quite simply, coffee shops allow people of all ages to engage in perfectly acceptable private activities a setting where they will consistently see other people and be seen. I’ve already mentioned their adaptability to a variety of urban forms. Most coffee shops exploit their own malleable milieu by offering other goods and services in conjunction with the coffee: some sell the original bean, some sell exotic roasts or blends, most sell sandwiches or at least pastries, some offer drive-through services, many host special events. But the key defining characteristic of a coffeehouse is the way it affords the power to appropriate private space under so few rules that the space assumes almost public, non-exclusionary characteristics. You can do just about whatever you want—provided that it’s already legal in public—in many of the most successful coffeehouses across the country.

It’s safe to venture that, in a good economy, a new locally owned coffee shop opens somewhere in the US at least once a week, if not much more. Websites like Indie Coffee Shops or Delocator even help travelers spot the most distinctive non-chain coffee purveyors. No matter what the size of a community is, at least one entrepreneur is likely to attempt to open a coffee shop at some point. Even an economically struggling jurisdiction is likely to see the occasional scrappy coffee house give its best shot amid high vacancies and inexpensive leases. They were virtually unheard of outside of the biggest metropolises as recently as 1990, until a certain humble retailer named Starbucks started gingerly trying its luck in metros outside of Seattle, and eventually, the rest of the world. Chain or independent, this non-alcoholic lounge environment has ascended to a proven retail typology, loosely akin to the big box or the drive-thru—it works across a variety of settings. One might have thought that, by this point, coffee houses would approach ubiquity—that they demonstrate such an enduring appeal that they can augur the economic growth of an area.

Yet many of these indie coffee shops break ground and then fold within a few years or even months. No doubt most of us witnessed it: that likable place with the fantastic blend that never has more than 3 or 4 patrons, yet you try to promote it as much as possible, because eventually it will catch on due to word of mouth….then it doesn’t. In no time, that storefront has a “FOR LEASE” sign out front. So how can an independently operated coffee house—a true newcomer—bolster its longevity in this era of Starbucks? This example below along a historic main street reveals an unremarkable effort—but highly indicative because of its ordinariness—to introduce java to an economically sluggish commercial area:

Pascagoula, Mississippi is a mid-sized city along the Gulf Coast, close to the Alabama border. It lacks the high profile of its bigger, flashier neighbors, Gulfport and Biloxi, both of which lured a number of large casinos to their waterfronts over the past twenty years, helping to elevate Mississippi among the top states for casino revenue—usually part of the trifecta that includes Nevada and New Jersey. (Many of the most prominent casinos rebuilt shortly after Hurricane Katrina.) Pascagoula, though, has remained considerably quieter, with an almost completely residential waterfront. This city of approximately 25,000 souls derives most of its economic base from Ingalls Shipbuilding, the shipyard which hosts Northrop Grumman, whose warship division here often serves as Mississippi’s largest private employer. All three of the aforementioned cities were badly devastated by the heavy winds and storm surge induced by Hurricane Katrina; the serene Pascagoula waterfront offers newly built homes on pilings alternating with concrete slabs where homes once stood and the owners have yet to rebuild.

Pascagoula’s main street falls under a completely different scenario:

Downtown Pascagoula seems far smaller than one might expect for a city of 25,000—much of this derives from the fact that, until 1950, it was a modest fishing village, and the Cold War demand for ships helped galvanize the population boom. Like the similarly scaled city of Dover, Delaware (and former blog subject), Pascagoula boomed after the proliferation of the automobile, so a disproportionately high amount of its building stock appears suburban and auto-oriented by today’s standards. (Truthfully, it’s just a smaller version of the same phenomenon plainly visible in post-automobile sunbelt cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix.) Delmas Avenue, the commercial main street of Pascagoula, appears fairly intact, without the vast stretches of emptiness that characterize Gulfport and Biloxi, both of which lost a considerable amount of their downtowns to Hurricane Katrina. Pascagoula’s downtown is further inland, buffering it from the worst of the storm surge; the city also sits farther away from the eye of the storm, so winds were most likely weaker. But the considerable investment in street beautification most likely post-dates Katrina, even if the source of the funds—HUD’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) had nothing to do with disaster recovery itself.

I have long been skeptical that streetscape improvements achieve much in the way of revitalizing a main street, as I wrote about in an Indiana town much smaller than Pascagoula that attempted a similar initiative, essentially replicating the look of the popular suburban retail typology of the lifestyle center (i.e., malls without roofs). Many historic main streets with particularly unlovely sidewalks have soared. But I hardly want to criticize the instigators of these improvements on their efforts. Pascagoula’s main street is not dead: a few retailers making a go of it, and of course one of them is the featured coffee house.

The proprietors of Courthouse Coffee seem to understand the recipe for success with this kind of enterprise. While coffeehouses do not depend on urban environments to prosper, nearly every great walkable commercial main street harbors at least one independent coffee shop. The problem is, Delmas Avenue in Pascagoula is not flourishing: it is only about 50% occupied, at most. The sidewalks look fantastic, of course, but the building façades suffered the sort of mummification that only an era as hostile to urbanism as the 1960s and 70s could induce.

And much of the surrounding area is a sea of parking—not building slabs, as one sees in Biloxi and Gulfport—suggesting that any other historic architecture was demolished to service the industry visible in the background of the photo below.

This two-block portion of Delmas Avenue is actually a bit tough for the visitor to find among the spread-out civic buildings, churches, and a railroad depot, all of which constitute most of the rest of the downtown. Yet it may still be enough to herald a revitalization to downtown Pascagoula. Clearly a few smart preservationists saw the merit in this old firehouse building:

Despite the heavily modified façade, the spirited result seems to host the only other restaurant currently in business on the main street. But Courthouse Coffee still faces a great deal of challenges, manifested by the decals on the door:

Standard business hours are undoubtedly all that this place can hope for in a downtown that has very little attraction on evenings and weekends. But truncated operational times often equate to the death knell for a coffee shop. I know that remaining open 45 hours a week is hardly that limited, but people seek these establishments because they offer such a wide berth for congregation. Excluding the evenings—even if only until 7 pm—removes much of the client base that would seek such a business for leisure, rather than just its apparent breakfast or lunch offerings, its desserts, or its early morning brew. And, with all the pretty trees and flowers and decorative brick patterns, isn’t a recreational main street in large part what Pascagoula’s applicants for these Community Development Block Grants are probably seeking as the impetus for revitalization? No one should force Courthouse Coffee to stay in business after dark. (The poor coffee shop probably couldn’t sustain itself that way.) But since one would presume that these small business owners were hoping to “ride the wave” of a revitalized Delmas Avenue, wouldn’t they attempt to capture the sort of population seeking a coffee shop who might otherwise go home to relax, read a book, or surf the internet?

Coffeehouses may have been a destination unto themselves for Middle Eastern men 500 years ago and beat poets just 50, but they are hardly a silver bullet for revitalization of a commercial district suffering the doldrums. One could claim that they’re simply too small, they don’t have a sufficiently diverse enough, they don’t attract the big enough spenders, they’re only an accessory to some larger, anchoring activity going on down the street. But the fact is that nothing is a guaranteed economic bonanza for downtowns. Countless large cities in America have sports arenas near their city center, yet downtown remains moribund any time outside of the big game. A coffee shop like Courthouse may not single-handedly turn around a main street’s economic fortune—no single business ever does—but it can work with the level of ambition that took an aging fire station elsewhere on Delmas Avenue and turned it into a moderately priced restaurant. Perhaps Courthouse Coffee could stay open till sort of late (8 pm perhaps) just two nights a week—one Friday night and one weeknight. If a city like Pascagoula doesn’t have a big enough counterculture craving an after-dark destination, it just needs to think of the potential clientele it does have. Teenagers, typically not lacking in their free time, are always seeking places to congregate and spontaneously run into their peers. (This, of course, is the main reason they’re such denizens of suburban shopping malls.) Live music might be a draw, but staying open solely to host a club meeting, or a Bible study, or a poetry slam can also do the trick. After all, even the coffee shops in thriving urban districts often have to find some way to distinguish themselves. But the good ones would never dream of closing until well after it is dark outside.

Obviously I’ve just launched on a flight of fancy regarding an establishment that wasn’t even open on the Saturday I visited Pascagoula. No doubt I’ve only demonstrated my own bias and love of coffee shops in the process. But coffee shops are just as solid of a contributor to a downtown revitalization as the big-ticket items, since downtowns and main streets both revitalize by accretion, and a good coffeehouse scores a point the same way a new convention center might. The fact that the market for coffee shops has penetrated smaller communities in recent years is a testament to their versatility and democratizing impact, even if most of the small-town incarnations close after 36 months. Though I have yet to see a downtown that attributes its revival to a coffee shop, I would never rule out the possibility. All thriving coffee shops—even the suburban ones with a drive-thru (as long as that’s not all they have)—appeal to the same unconscious needs for human-to-human engagement that great downtowns do, in communities big and small.