Twenty years ago this month a former mattress store opened its doors as a warm, spacious, California-style coffee house: The Coffee Depot. Pioneering and exciting at its inception, the Depot has now …
Twenty years ago this month a former mattress store opened its doors as a warm, spacious, California-style coffee house: The Coffee Depot. Pioneering and exciting at its inception, the Depot has now been around so long and is such a fixture of Main Street Warren, that for many who now call Warren home there wasn’t a time when the Depot wasn’t a Main Street fixture. And as many a creation seen so often over time reaches a point where it fails to be recognized for what it truly is, the Depot may now be suffering the same fate. The Depot? What’s so special about it?
Without a whole lot of fanfare, over its 20 years the Coffee Depot has filled (and continues to fill) many roles: art gallery (well over 240 artists have exhibited work on its walls); music stage (for a while it hosted a Friday night open-mic until it got squeezed by music copyrights bullies); venue and vendor for poetry collections, CD recordings, local craftspeople (ceramicists, scarf-makers, honey makers); bean seller; nosheria; and of course, caffeine dispensary.
Yet, what the Coffee Depot has been most importantly is Warren’s unofficial community center. Yes, all the sippables and edibles are great, but it’s the place, the almost too-big room of the Depot that provides the Depot its greatest significance. From its earliest planning, founder Ed Pearson, soon joined by co-owner Steve Lake, wanted the Coffee Depot to offer a large, comfortable space that any and all could enter, whatever their level of sociability, from those who prefer keeping to themselves reading a book or newspaper or clicking away on a computer, to those who enter on the scent of greater engagement and the flavors of conversation and chit-chat that pair well with C8-H10-N4-O2.
Above all, its mission has been to make those who visit feel at home, that they belong, and that they are free to linger — no strings or clocks attached.
And people have responded to that mission. Books have been written there; marriage proposals have been offered there; wedding plans have gone from $0 to $60k in no time, there; many a high school or college assignment has been not only completed there but later, in turn, graded there. The list of uses to which the Depot has been put over the years by those who have felt at home is very long, and growing.
Yet, if asked what is the greatest benefit the Depot brings to our community, I would say it’s the civic potential the three large, round tables that dominate the room offer. Not all the time, but often, a customer can go into the Depot and see one or more of these tables encircled by five, six, seven, eight, or more people engaged in fervent conversation, sometimes lighthearted banter, sometimes the kind of conversation where people speak with taut conviction and are listened to with equal conviction. Around these tables matters of agreed-upon importance high and low get discussed, face to face, and among the more serious discussions by people who may or may not agree with the points of view expressed, but who hear them out knowing they are then free to offer an alternate view. In other words, when topics turn thorny and even contentious, what happens at these tables is so much the opposite of what we have generally in this country today, where people of like minds huddle among each other and chant from the same hymnal, never engaging, never risking to engage an outside verse, a different belief, one or several who see and sing things differently.
Over my 20 years of patronage I have many times entered the Depot, especially on Sunday mornings when I have gone there most, to find the over-sized tables crowded as one topic or another was getting volleyed this way and that, by friends, by church groups, by a mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar, as if in matches of circular ping pong. Some at the table held paddles, some simply spectated, but all were fixed on the game at hand, an exchange of thoughts and ideas, an oftentimes entertaining exchange. And it was understood: all were welcome to participate or simply to watch and listen; all were of equal standing, however they chose to exercise it.
At times there were arguments, generally intense, sometimes even heated, but they never rose to the level of fury, rage, shouting. It was as though the tables had unspoken rules for those who sat at them: Say what you want, but keep yourself civil. People did. And do.
In other words, for 20 years those round tables at the Coffee Depot have, at their best, invited people to sit and openly and safely disagree with each other, to hash out ideas, to offer oneself up to the potential of being persuaded by a point of view to which they had adamantly been opposed, or so they thought.
How often have such conversions occurred in the Depot, and how often still? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that in a world, a town, that increasingly finds such face-to-face encounters impossible — physically, politically — the Depot has been and will continue to be a place of such possibility. Where people can come together, argue strongly, and walk away if not friends then at least friendly.
So, to all those who have enjoyed the Depot over the years, and especially those who have gone there in support of the seemingly quaint notion of civic and civil dialogue, Happy Anniversary. And to Ed Pearson and Steve Lake, thank you for providing Warren a venue, a meeting place, a talking place, that few other towns are fortunate enough to have. Here’s to your next twenty.