Farewell, Fifth and State Starbucks

Farewell, Fifth and State Starbucks

(Note: I wrote this commentary shortly after the Starbucks at Fifth and State in Erie, Pennsylvania, closed. It was supposed to have appeared in a local publication, but must have fallen between the cracks. These months later, then, I share it here on A Napper’s Companion.)

The catchy Starbucks logo . . . but not the soul of Fifth and State. (Credit: foursquare.com)

I’m awfully sad these days.

From 2001 through 2019, I wrote mostly in coffee shops. Erie, Pennsylvania, has seen its share of them come, go and hang on. Moonsense on Peach and Aromas on West Eighth were great. I piled up words at both. Brick House on West 26th is still brewing, but it’s way across town. Ember and Forge and Pressed are relative newcomers that I’ve sampled and may well wear out in their turn. The Tipsy Bean at 25th and Peach is my current perch. Of all the haunts, however, Starbucks has provided most of my gallons, from decaf Americanos to unsweetened iced teas. The one at Fifth and State was among my favorites.

Alas, the Coronavirus punched everybody’s routine in the throat. Shut out of beloved establishments, I ordered a prefab shed and spent the summer and fall of 2020 making it my writing hut. At this moment I’m tapping away as the bird feeders sway and snowflakes dance on their way to the backyard. The temperature is falling. Once my white noise was eclectic music, chatter and espresso machine hiss, but now it’s wind that sounds human: Ah, oh

Foxhound Sherlock Holmes keeping me company during a writing day in December of 2020. (Credit: John Coleman)

Still a robust coffee house patron, I look out from my 8’ x 12’ sanctum between sentences and wonder if Starbucks and Tipsy Bean know what they mean to their customers. My curiosity doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Man meditating at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. (Credit: John Coleman)

When I pulled up to Fifth and State yesterday, it was deserted. The windows were bare, no hours posted. The meaning was unmistakable, and it felt like a death.

I went right to the Bean. Barista Liv had already heard. Later I caught a statement from corporate on GoErie.com: “As part of Starbucks standard course of business, we continually evaluate our business to ensure a healthy store portfolio. After careful consideration, we determined it is best to close the (502 State St. store). Our last day at this location was Dec. 27.”

Now, I’ll try to be fair. When a mom and pop cries uncle, customers generally know about the decision. In fact, closure is often the end of a lengthy struggle. An owner might need years to bounce back personally from losses. What’s more, the community accompanies beloved proprietors to the last and appreciates the opportunity to say, “Thank you,” and “Godspeed.”

But Starbucks is no mom and pop. Forbes.com notes that the java colossus saw revenues of $23.5 billion in 2020. Still, the chain Howard Schultz made mighty is not in business to bleed money. Fifth and State is strangled to the north by a long-term construction project and lacks a drive through. And finding employees during the pandemic has been onerous, though I can’t help but imagine that peeling off a few billion of those profits for higher wages might have gone some way toward encouraging more applicants.

No comment necessary. (Credit: Giuseppe Colarusso)

Back to fairness, though. Shutterings happen. BusinessInsider.com reports that Schultz returned to the Starbucks helm in 2008 after an eight-year absence and reversed a downward trend in profits by taking assertive steps, “including temporarily closing all US stores to re-train employees on how to make an espresso” and permanently shutting down “600 . . . underperforming stores, 70% of which had been open for three years or less.”

So Fifth and State may have been doomed. That I can tolerate. Unless I missed a memo, however, the departure was shabby, reminiscent of football’s Baltimore Colts’ escape to Indianapolis at twilight in 1984 as fans slept. No announcements, no goodbye. Team owner Bob Irsay might have been pilloried by the press had he dawdled, but so what? All farewells deserve tending. Difficult ones require sacrifice.

Frankly, an outfit like Starbucks that is impressively in the black can afford—and would probably benefit from—an exit more sensitive than issuing beige blather about ensuring “a healthy store portfolio.” This is particularly true for a corporation that trains its baristas to be of tirelessly good spirits and nurtures a sense of community and loyalty to its brand. To Starbucks’ credit, the strategy works well.

The trouble is, severing relationships skillfully and meticulously built in such an offhand fashion makes devotees feel betrayed. Hearing our names called out as we cross the threshold; being asked if we want our usual; seeing our name on a wipe-screen with said usual noted; engaging in a moment’s banter and sharing a laugh: Look, we’ve known all along that this modus operandi was calculated, integral to the corporate formula.

Grandson Cole with Pop at Starbucks, 12th and Pittsburgh, seven years ago. All of the Erie Starbucks have been a big part of my life. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But I’m talking about the soul of Starbucks, and in this respect Fifth and State was distinctive. The intersection is about as urban as Erie gets; therefore, many of the customers greeted with comfort and cheer stood in special need of both.

No location ought to be primarily a place to get warm in winter and cool in summer, but Fifth and State filled that need with remarkable grace. Many hours I sat elbow-to-elbow with folks whose dress was shabby. They nursed their purchased beverage, its cost having covered more than a product. Like all the regulars, they, too, were called by name. The table they occupied was come by fair and square. No kidding, I was proud to be there.

Maybe I’m projecting, but the baristas seemed to embrace an unspoken mission: Everybody deserves a friendly welcome, a comfortable place to sit for a while and top-notch coffee in a cup that takes the winter chill from hands circled around it.

I’m going to miss employees and clientele alike. Admittedly, nobody is going to freeze to death or suffer heat stroke because, say, an insurance agency moves into Starbucks’ old storefront. And the GoErie.com report notes that baristas “were given the option to transfer to nearby locations.” That’s considerate.

My long-standing habit is to tell anybody and everybody when they do a good job, and those behind the counter at coffee shops have been frequent recipients of praise. Now I’m compelled to send a little blame to Seattle: “It wasn’t sporting of you to close Erie’s Fifth and State and let us know retroactively. That’s poor form, and a corporation with your marketing wizardry is capable of much better. On the off chance that you read this, please reconsider your approach to leave-taking in the future. In this sad season for Americans, your patrons in one Pennsylvania town begin a new year sadder still.”

Farewell, my lovely, with an industrial casket out front, June 22, 2022. A final thanks to all the baristas who made Fifth and State a home along the way. (Credit: John Coleman)

A Soul Message to My Regulars

Dear Regulars:

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Elena’s old teacher notes that some students can’t find Europe on a map. You never know what the Starbucks regulars will kibitz about. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So what else would I be doing at 8:21 on a Monday morning? I’m at Starbucks, surrounded by regulars: a couple of lawyers dressed for court; a retiree who by coincidence was daughter Elena’s social studies teacher; a young artist who sketches fairies and dragons and buzzes half her skull down to stubble; an engineer numbed by an online meeting; and a woman who pours out her life for children and grandchildren. I’ve talked to all of them, some more than others. They feel like beloved cousins. Such goodness in these folks.

All tables are taken. The guy in my seat tries to pull the reigns on aging and negotiates with a temporarily bum shoulder. “Shoveling snow really did this to you? Do you need three ibuprofen or four?” “Make it four.”

As I sip a refill, the sun shines, then hides, then shines again. Breathing in and out, I think of you, whenever and wherever we inhabited each others’ days:

childhood

high school

college

graduate schools

seminary

old neighborhoods

and

jobs

grocery stores

coffee houses no longer

offices and waiting rooms

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Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins: it’s been thirty years. Herb and Rosemary, hi! Armand and Lynda, I’ll see you on the other side, right? (Credit: Wikipedia)

You aren’t showing up all at once. No, I receive you one-by-one, gratefully. Caroline. Bill. Jeff. Nancy. A procession of Garys. Because I know others by your names, namesakes straggle in. Welcome, everyone.

Hello, Becky, sister of Steven from Diehl Elementary School. (She had her leg amputated below the knee, then later—I don’t remember how long—she died, ten or twelve. Cancer.) Look into the eyes of glory, Becky. Belly laugh with the other children.

You don’t have to walk among the quick to be one of my regulars.

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Hyacinths always remind me of you, Gram–the curls of your wig.

Grandma Miller, your fingers are folded back into knuckled wings! I see your hair curled like hyacinths and your swollen face, but I can’t hear your voice anymore. I was sixteen. If it is permitted, Gram, please be there to receive me.

Hi, Alice, a wealth of Johns (that sounds wrong in a couple of ways), an embarrassment of Marys, more Kathys than I know what to do with. Matthews and Marks.

Now a tangible Patty shows up to share my table. That’s fine. She brings other Ps with her. Pauls, Pegs, Phils, one Penelope, and a lone Poopsie.

So many Richards and Elizabeths!

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Why have you arrived here, Anne Frank? No matter. All kids’ faces are sweet in my eyes. All are welcome. (Credit: Wikimedia)

What’s this? Jesse? I never knew you, but here you are, a sweet obituary face. Those who love you still dream you in their arms–your dear smile alone tells me this. I wasn’t expecting to welcome strangers to this gathering, but my plans seldom work out. So come in, Jesse. Stand glad with me in this warm light. Thich Nhat Hanh, wake up and bow to me. I’m listening. Rise, Ann Frank. Find your way home, Nigerian school girls. All of you, join Patty and me at this table.

Oh, my Lord, friends I’ve never seen or held are asking to join me in this public grace–names beginning with S, N, R, D, K, C, M. The alphabet isn’t long enough, though, miraculously, there’s room at this table, in this column of sun, for all of you, my regulars of many initials.

I don’t want to pretend. During these coffees in this now constant light, you haven’t all arrived. But wherever you are, I’m waiting. If mornings and afternoons are bitter and twilight is fretful, I’ll sit with you in safety. And if you have too many blessings to carry, hand me a few. We’ll give thanks together and I’ll share what you’ve given with others and probably hang on to one for myself.

I love you, friends. Your faces—skin creased by decades or still fair, eyebrows raised in surprise, or cheeks flushed with excitement or trouble—are dear to me.

Photo on 10-10-14 at 10.02 AM

This face, such as it is, welcomes you. Come share the light, rest a while.

If you haven’t visited today, don’t worry. You will soon. Meanwhile, know that whether this day is good enough to travel by its own steam or so lousy it refuses to budge, call on me for a visit. The shoulder pain has eased enough for me to put an arm around you.

We’ll be calm and glad. If clouds take over, so be it. Present to each other–just two or three gathered–we can shine anyway.

Peace and love,

John