Vermillion Downtown’s Penultimate Third Place to Shutter after the Holidays


Will the Coffee Shop Gallery find a new owner?

Photo by Mandan Lynn from Igougo.com

Scuttlebutt on the street and in the shop is that the Coffee Shop Gallery will be shutting its doors after the Christmas holidays if it does not find new ownership.  Michelle Mechling, longtime owner of the shop, has been trying to sell the business for some years now.

The Coffee Shop Gallery has long been the place to go for a good cuppa, and the place to go if you’ve been off in the world and are back in the Verm for a visit or for good.  It’s the place to connect and reconnect with friends and strangers alike over great food and beverages in a cozy atmosphere.

And, it’s a cornerstone of downtown Vermillion life–a hang-out and a jumping-off and resting point for shopping excursions downtown.  A place for a casual lunch, snack, class meeting and meeting with friends.  It’s a place where the arts culture of the city is expressed through poetry slams and regular art shows from the area.

And it’s going to be gone.

Already the shelves are looking meager–the once-full tea display is rapidly emptying, and the whole bean coffee selection is half-gone.  The economy has taken its toll on the numbers of clientele, and on many afternoons, there are fewer customers lounging on the couch or clicking at their keyboards.

The Coffee Shop Gallery has long been Vermillion’s best all-ages third place–a place away from home or work where community can be forged over cups of steaming coffee and espresso beverages or icy Italian sodas.  Its downtown corner location offers a good amount of parking, and it’s a favorite walking and biking destination as well.

As one who has worked in the food service industry–four coffee shops, a couple of restaurants, a couple of bars, and a bakery–I’ll be the first to say that working with the public isn’t always easy.  It’s long hours; it’s making up shifts for people who call in sick (or simply don’t show); it’s dealing with prigs and a tight bottom line.

It’s also forging friendships and putting smiles on faces–making a special treat they’ve never tried before and making them feel at home, making someone just what they wanted in a world where that doesn’t often happen, making them feel like someone listened to them–even if it wasn’t their boss, but their barista.  It’s about making people feel special.

According to the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) page on Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place:

In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Oldenburg suggests that beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. They promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities.

This is the function that the Coffee Shop Gallery has been fulfilling in the Vermillion community for years now–from its cramped but intimate beginnings on East Main between the Vermillion Beauty Shop and Uncle John’s (do you remember when?) to its much-expanded digs on West Main and Market’s lively corner.

My dream for the Coffee Shop under new ownership is more of a bakery and cafe atmosphere, where the yeasty heat of high-quality fresh-baked breads, scones, and cookies mingles with the enticing aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and perfectly-steeped teas.

Where the sandwiches are made on the same breads baked in the back kitchen, and where the soups and salads are as high-quality and homemade as they have been under Shelly’s direction.  I envision a place where service is friendly and efficient, but customers (friends!) feel free to linger in that warm, inviting haven.

I see a press pot of black tea ready for to-go orders alongside the urns of coffee.  Sorry, flavored coffee fans–those chemical-soaked beans don’t figure in my fantasy.  Why not try a latte or an Americano with a half-shot of flavored syrup?  Trust me, I’ve seen how they flavor those coffees, and that’s not something you want in your body.

I also envision the possibility of a proper Sunday brunch for a change–though to really do it right, you’d have to take a page out of Emma’s Kitchen past and get your beer and wine license to serve mimosas along with the quiches and French toast, the muffins and–can we have marmalade to go with that rye bread?  I’m in heaven….

If you’re up for the challenge of running the most important meeting place in town (sorry, City Hall, you’re way too stiff-looking for that honor), contact Shelly and get on it right away.  We can’t afford to lose our hangout, our haven, our third place.

And the ideas above are completely free for the taking.  What can you imagine?

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7 responses to this post.

  1. what sad news…and what a lovely tribute…I love your black tea presspot idea, too.

    I think what will be most missed by me is its uncanny ability to draw most of the people with whom I wish to visit when I visit Vermillion. Within moments of receiving my cup there’ll be Susan coming through with a kid in one arm and art in the other, or a faculty member I recognize, and always, if one waits in the front long enough (and typically not long), Al will appear.

    I’ll never forget my first cappuccinos, and knowing I would be a worthy server of that revered beverage when Bert approved with a smack of his lips. Or grabbing the $1 cup the moment I saw Harry come through the door for his daily commiserating at the bar. So many streams of people, many of them like clockwork, all of them needing a place to go, a familiar face, a bagel with cream cheese.

    How many nights did I mop those floors at day’s end? I can remember Deep Forest playing on the speakers, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Indigo Girls and Bob Marley. I can remember every corner of those floors in my mind, and making muffins in the morning, my routine of getting the coffee brewed and the money in the till and opening the doors for the day’s business, and a moment later the bell’s ring and someone is here for their Jumpstart with extra dairy. I always remember their drink.

    And mine…Matt’s Mocha, Ecto Chiller, and the Glacier: espresso, chocolate, milk, and ice cream, all poured into one of the bowl-sized cups in a particular order…and knowing it was a winner when Heidi downed it in quick gulps of delight.

    Then decorations…like my Espresso Fun Facts and the Bathroom Sign still taped in the back, and all the scents of Highlander Grog and Coconut Cream and Russian Caravan and Snow Plum Monkey (the label erroneous but uncorrected in light of the humor of it) and Monk’s Prayer.

    It was one of the first places I ever felt cool, like I really belonged for a long while and felt a sense of community. It was a just a bonus that I got to indulge in my extreme love of coffee on the side. It was the last place I stopped on my way out of town to move to Seattle…for a thermos of mocha, and it was the place I first worked up the nerve to say hello to you, sitting at the end of the bar, that woman I’d noticed years earlier playing chess with Chris in the front window of the old shop where I used to write poetry and stare at the sky-painted ceiling. A woman who just had an air about her, a strong profile, and a voice of authority. So I asked you over for wine while I was wiping down the bar and doing dishes and you pondered for a moment and said okay. And years later I still remember how good the coffee in that place tasted, but I’ll recall it more fondly as the place where I met my best friend.

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on December 2, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    You just made me cry. Wanna open a coffee shop together? Maybe I’d overlook my dislike of flavored coffees for Highlander Grogg…

  3. Posted by Bert on December 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Ohhhh Jeeeez, say it ain’t so!

    The Home of the Legendary Coffee Hag (Get yer own goddam sprinkles!) and the Daylight Center of the Vermillion Vortex to be no more!? I can’t even fathom it–after nearly 20 years, old shop and new. C’mon Vermites, what ever happened to traditional 10 O’Clock coffee time?! Someone give Shel a break and take this indispensable institution on.

    I have schlepped to a lot of corners of this wacked out country and have never found a better double cap or an atmosphere more conducive to convivial conversation and real joie d’vie! It is unquestionably a rare and vital place that made Verm (for me anyway) a more than decent place to live. How the hell can the community let that slip away!? Damn I wish I was there and had the wherewithall to have a go.

    Hats off to Shelly and Todd and all the present and former barristas and barristos for making it what it is. Sacrafice a pidgeon in the dead of night to the Coffee Hag or whatever it takes to get the powers for good in the community on board to keep the Coffee Shop going long into the future!

    Lemme hear an Aaaaaaamen!!!!

    Yours in a caffinated frenzy of amazement and disbelief–Bert

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on December 2, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Comment approved, and…

    AAAAAAAA-MEN!!!

  5. Depressing indeed! I’m still not a coffee drinker, but we all need places — “third places,” right on! — where we can see and be seen, where we can claim a shared community space. I hope you find some forward-thinking buyers!

  6. Posted by alta delaCruz on December 3, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    As an artist who was fortunate enough to have a one-woman show in the old Coffee Shop Gallery (in the old pet store), I am sad to hear that Michelle’s dream of a place for art, poetry and coffee may soon be gone. Anybody can put together a coffee shop; it’s the rest of her vision that will be difficult to replace. Michelle, thank you for what you have given to Vermillion. I hope that if someone takes up the task, they will not forget the Gallery part of the original vision.

  7. Posted by La Rae on December 7, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Noooooooooooooo!!!!!
    I spent a lot of study time there, then after we were married, my husband and I spent a lot of time there, then, after my two kids were born, my husband, I and my two boys spent a lot of time there . . . The Coffee Shop Gallery can’t go. It’s family!
    Ok, anybody want to partner up and buy it???
    🙂

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