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Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village

Photo Source VasenkaPhotography | CC BY 2.0

In 2007, when Starbucks took over a cavernous storefront formerly occupied by a children’s clothing store, it resulted in a sprawling interior space with comfortable chairs and sofas niched around the pillars; banquettes lined a wall decorated with local art work, some of the tables and easy chairs facing the bay and park across the street. The effect was upscale almost, and very urban, each seating area affording a measure of privacy in a public space.

There was plenty of room for everyone. The employees paid little attention to what went on in the customer area. After school let out, teenagers filtered in and settled in a section toward the back, where they hung out with friends and could use the unlocked bathroom.

As the town’s public toilets had recently been shut down and the library was half a mile away, it was a godsend to have a quasi-public bathroom. And Starbucks was a convenient place to meet up with people or wait for a ride home after getting off the late evening train.

We locals, the backbone of their business, each had our own customary spot. Ray, who worked at the five-and-ten until it went out of business, sat near the front entrance with her knitting. An elderly man in a wheelchair whiled away morning hours near one of the central pillars, and an unpublished mystery writer, also in a wheelchair, worked in a nook beside another pillar. A neatly dressed man in his early forties–possibly a NY Times editor—sat at his laptop in the same banquette day after day. It was a calming, undemanding place—and anyone might have felt at home.

However, in setting up this operation, Starbucks was throwing down the gauntlet to an artisan coffee place right across the street–where beans roasted on the premises are freshly ground for each individual cup. Max’s café is so venerated by his longstanding customer base that when summer arrives and you need a cup of his specially brewed strong iced coffee you might have to wait in line for up to 20 minutes.

Particularly out here—a largely working-class town (sparsely inhabited during the winter) that has   become an increasingly popular summer destination and a mecca for more and larger yachts–such customer bases tend to be composed disproportionately of either “haves” (mainly) or “have-nots.”

Everything at Max’s costs roughly the same as at Starbucks. But at Max’s, while you may see some of the more affluent locals, most year-round village residents somehow sense this coffee spot is for tourists and not for them. This is not a place to while away the afternoon in comfortable clothes, but to position yourself in one of your better outfits, have an animated conversation for 20 minutes, and then move on.

In contrast to the anonymity of Starbucks, here the proprietor is on hand, observing and evaluating the clientele. Max’s regulars, a few of whom might appear slightly prole-ish, are usually realtors, village administrators, second home owners, retired professionals, trendy local artist celebrities, and small business owners. Rarely at Max’s will you find: immigrants; people of color; poorer retirees; cashiers; low-level clerical workers; tradesmen or handymen; the men who circle the streets in pickup trucks–going I know not where; the ancient widows who have lived here all their lives—and their children and grandchildren living with them who work at the hospital or deliver the mail; marginal creative types, or any members of the “helping” professions. In so far as you’ll ever find them enjoying their leisure anywhere, it’s more likely to be at Starbucks.

Max, a very old hand at sorting through what passes for the social heap here—who does what, who owns what–will size you up and to the best of his gifts, allocate whatever miniscule degree of deference he thinks befits your rank. You may begin to feel that the foreign newspapers up front that no one ever reads, along with you, the customer, are props he is using to create the desired ambience. You are Max’s customer but also a character in his masque—and anyone who might mar the choreography will soon feel alone and unwelcome.

His hiring practices might appear laudably inclusive–though unlike Starbucks, he does not employ local teenagers. And his staff—exclusively female immigrants, except for one homeless African American man who comes around sporadically to do miscellaneous chores—also work behind the scenes in his bakery; they roast and bag the extensive array of organic beans sold to retail customers and many of the local restaurants; and do not communicate readily or needlessly. And Max’s preferred customers likely appreciate their unobtrusiveness. American society is democratic, of course, but everyone must have a sense of decorum and know their place. These café/eateries are safe spaces for the 15%.

Every time I run into Ray in town now, we remind each other how great it used to be during those long cold winters before Starbucks closed. She claims the reason she doesn’t frequent Max’s is the coffee is too strong. I ask her, “Have you found another place?’

“I go to Gary’s [a corner breakfast deli/luncheonette favored by local tradesmen] in the mornings sometimes. I just buy a cup of coffee and he doesn’t seem to mind if I sit for a while reading a book.”

Women can linger solo in coffee shops in the cities and suburbs—but out here you’re much more conspicuous. So I have moved on to the single-user conference rooms you can reserve at the library–which doesn’t appeal to Ray, who would rather be out in the world.

Unfortunately for her, Gary’s has recently gone under. Vacant for an entire season, his building and another one across the street have been acquired by a new restaurant management group. Driven from her reading and knitting spaces, Ray must now choose between Rick’s and the Purple Goose Bakery. Although the staff at both are reasonably friendly, neither alternative is satisfactory. At the Purple Goose, the seating area feels more like an entryway. At Rick’s–where you once had a sidewalk café where a person could sit reading a newspaper for an hour or two–half the space is now given over to his new upscale restaurant–and it’s obvious he wants to keep turnover high in the café part since it has been reduced in size.

Who eats in these high-priced places anyway? (It’s far too easy to make this stuff at home.) Tourists and day trippers? Second home owners? We need a diner here.

In recent years, mom-and-pop stores have been facing a terminal crisis when their lease expires. Max was able to win his war with Starbucks because he owns his building, while Starbucks leased their space.

However, it was not high rent—but competition from the big-box stores—that did in our local department store, a unique village landmark that thrived under two generations of family ownership.

When they sold it in 1997 (the year Woolworths went out of business), the store was still selling virtually everything needed to set up housekeeping–plus clothing, stationary, all kinds of paraphernalia, knickknacks, souvenirs, really just about every necessity that residents and summer vacationers required. But a Wal-Mart in a neighboring town was selling most of these items, too. And a nearby megamall contained just about every conceivable chain store.

Nevertheless, the new owner was determined to keep the department store going, and it remained popular—a relic of a bygone era, the creaky wooden floors only adding to its charm. But then, finally, succumbing to the recession in 2010, he threw in the towel.

The young entrepreneur who bought it in 2012 vowed he would not change anything. He left the old increasingly unsaleable merchandise in place, while the musty odor became overwhelming, asphyxiating. Eventually he turned the place into a flophouse, partitioning first the second-floor storage space and then the store itself into cubicles, which he rented to immigrants for $1500.

Violating every village code, a catastrophe waiting to happen, it was a deathtrap—with several tenants housed in each cubicle; no smoke detectors, fire alarms, or carbon monoxide detectors; no locks or windows; unlit halls and stairs; hazardous cooking and makeshift bathing arrangements. When village officials and the police finally came to inspect the place, the residents fled leaving their belongings behind. The village fined the owner $5000 (less than the month’s rent roll). The store remains closed—and is currently available for lease—with decades-old merchandise still on display in the windows.

Surrounding the abandoned department store, a proliferation of new vintage shops with high prices has arisen. There are still some whimsical moderately priced shops for middle-class tourists who come out here with their families to spend the day, but many new businesses set their sights on the luxury market—which includes numerous yacht owners only here in the summer. Since the affluent second home owners buy their necessities elsewhere—and hire others to perform household and landscaping tasks–the old local nuts-and-bolts businesses have all folded. The local hardware store has been replaced by a high-end pet store specializing in fancy toys and fashionable carriers for small animals.

And in the heart of all this, a brand-new hotel with a sprawling street-level restaurant and a rooftop bar is about to open. No one works at the desk yet, but the wine is already set out in anticipation of the first customers.

This used to be a town. Used to have a hardware store; a shoe store; a five and ten; a diner; a camera store; a stationary store; a basket shop; a kitchenware store; a framer; a soda fountain; a coffee shop. Men went out in fishing boats. Cleaned oysters. Hired other people to clean oysters. Knew everyone. (The city people don’t want to.) Down the hill near the ravine–before it was a good neighborhood—my neighbor tells me, they used to kill pigs in the street. A shadowy entity gutted the house her husband built and made it into an AirBnB.

The flood of summer and weekend tourists are proving too much even for some of the second home owners—the well-heeled, largely professional folks who keep meeting each other out here because they all live (mainly) in the city as well as here; are invited to parties with people who live here and there; and do things with people who do things, They drive out here and then go back there week after week and meet with people who also go back and forth.

However, it seems our little maritime town may now be peaking–and losing that funky old-time seashore feel. And there’s the lurking threat of rising seas (“Buy high and sell low,” the saying goes). It may be time to cash in and move on—so they’ll bequeath their part-time community to a younger moneyed set (which might include a sprinkling of investors hoping to carve out a new Saint-Tropez on the Atlantic). They can see all their friends in the city anyway.

More articles by:

Kathy Deacon can be reached at stradella3@msn.com.

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