The Nation's Pulse

Coffee and Closure

Character revealed in economic misfortune.

By 12.19.08

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This is an Advent story, but it begins with an end. Because her landlord upped the rent to an amount that would shame even the villains in a Charles Dickens novel, the entrepreneur who runs the best coffee house in my neighborhood will be closing its doors on December 21st. 

The business is called "Mr. Toad's," and as you might expect, its name pays homage to Toad of Toad Hall, the most endearingly egotistical animal in Kenneth Grahame's century-old tale, The Wind in the Willows. Gary Kamiya calls Toad "one of the great comic characters in all literature," and "the little blowhard brother of Falstaff and Don Quixote."

Whether that sort of thing was on owner Stephanie's mind when she bought the business in 2004, I'm not sure, but she did more to capitalize on the name than its previous owner had. Stephanie gave Mr. Toad an American pedigree by nicknaming her mascot "Norm," and worked to ensure that coffee urns stood near a terrarium, while the espresso machine was loosely flanked by enough plastic and porcelain amphibians to form an infantry platoon.

A web-footed sage once remarked that it's not easy being green. The closing of this store could be read as a cautionary tale in a worrisome economy, but neither owner Stephanie nor manager Carrie now reads it that way, and I am not one to disagree with two beauties who would have been fitting subjects for a Renaissance master like Titian, especially when both women have startlingly quick memories and a genius for empathetic small talk.

What hit me like a North Atlantic salmon wrapped in yesterday's News & Observer is that by dedicating themselves to what Stephanie calls "coffee and coffee people alike," she and Carrie worked with similarly committed employees to create an impressive reservoir of customer loyalty. This is and soon was a coffee house where at least one patron spent Saturday mornings writing a master's thesis. Other regulars held meetings to create a charter school, or enjoyed the company of friends after rosary and bible study at the Catholic parish up the road.

As a member of the latter fraternity, I remember when one of our number returned from a road trip to New York City with loaves of Italian bread. Paisan that he is, Carl wanted to share that bread with other customers at what we jokingly dubbed "Our Lady of Toads," and so we pressed a Swiss Army knife into service. Such generosity was par for the course in the establishment where Carrie sang carols last Christmas, and Stephanie donates a portion of her profits to an agency that helps victims of domestic violence.

I mentioned an Advent angle to the challenge that Mistress Roaster and her manager now face, and it is this: Stephanie calls the coffee house her church, and Carrie is a Christian whose denomination I do not know, but both are buoyed by a joyful confidence that hard things happen for a reason, and that everybody in the coffee chain from producers to consumers deserves respect.

Call it winsome conviction or adamantine sincerity, but by any name, that attitude reminds me of angels who did not condescend to shepherds, and blanket-wielding children who recite the Christmas story from scripture on a school stage for their bewildered friends. I am also reminded of the carol describing how the boot prints of good King Wenceslas miraculously warmed the feet of his servant when they crossed a snowy valley carrying food to an impoverished peasant, and a little drummer boy whose willingness to concertize for the Holy Family becomes more of a gift than he even knows.

In short, while this story comes to you with a reckless disregard for the convention of changing names to protect the innocent, and its timing as an unsolicited plug is more than a little off, I can't ask a question like "Do you see what I see?" without trying to show you what that is. In a year when so much of the economic news is bad, I continue to learn from and be blessed by the example of two people running a coffee house, one of them a peer, the other young enough to be my daughter, both charming and trustworthy. Their hope is orders of magnitude stronger than my own, and I am thankful for that. As blogger Gerard Vanderleun wrote recently in a related context, "We are all lying in the mud, but some of us are looking at the stars." He could not have been more right.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.