It’s a quirky little place. The menu—sandwich and wrap selections, coffees and specialty drinks—is hand-written in brightly colored chalk on blackboards hanging behind the counter. Like most coffee shops, the sound of hissing and smell of freshly brewed beans adds to the ambiance. I glance at today’s selection of coffee flavors, also written in chalk on a small board leaning on the counter: hazelnut, organic Kona and the regular, fair trade option. But today I’m tempted by a mocha. Why not treat myself a little?
Tucked among a string of small businesses that come and go, victims of a sick economy, the Steaming Bean thrives on Main Street. We have two coffee shops in town. Both offer clusters of tables, free wifi, and an assortment of baked goodies along with their java choices. But I like The Bean, as it’s known by. It’s a little funkier, darker, cozier. I grab my steaming mocha in the ceramic mug and head up two steps to the platform area to sip, write and people-watch, one of my favorite pastimes.
A good coffee shop nestled in a small town or neighborhood takes on a Cheers-like quality, where everyone knows your name. I recognize a few people, smile and give the nod of recognition. Others walk in and strike up conversations with folks sitting at the table beside me. The music, a selection with a Latino beat, pulses in the background along with the soft conversation and sounds of the espresso machine. Someone has ordered a bagel with black bean hummus "shmere", and a smoky smell of burnt bagel crumbs wafts out from the toaster.
A few people are reading. Others, like me, are typing away on their computer, sipping a warming brew, just right for a cold day. A trio of school-aged girls arrive talking in the excited voices. They are commenting on the wall art, an ever-changing gallery for local artisans. Today’s art features a male African American dancer wearing a brightly ornate costume, his legs toned and muscular, his lips full and nose broad, several portraits of Native American women, rich with ethnic features and native costumes, and glowing with beauty. I know the artist. He is an older student at the local college, a Native American and has a passion and obvious talent for depicting beauty as it is, not as the media would gloss it over to be.
I am watching the time. Soon the neighborhood-watch officer will be by to mark tires with chalk, making sure parked vehicles abide by the two-hour time limit for street parking. I've already been here for two hours but am so comfortable and relaxed, I’m hesitant to leave.
I’m skeptical of chain coffee shops—a Starbucks on every corner, in every grocery, in every discount department store. Men and women in suits, hurrying to order their double cappacino, no whip, skinny, grandes. Sure these cookie-cutter franchises can serve up a frothy concoction, but can they offer a familiar smile, a smattering of local publications to peruse and the quirky creations of local artists?
If I’m in the big city, I’ll seek out the small neighborhood coffee shop—the one with homemade pastries and fair trade coffees. I’ll look for the cozy shop with a young barista wearing a slogan t-shirts and dreadlock hair held back by a faded bandana. I know if I find a unique corner nook like this, I'll sit down and order a cup-- not to go, but to stay and savor. I'll pull out my computer or flip through a local paper, do a little people watching and relax. If I know my coffee joints, we won't be strangers for long.