A tall black coffee, please.

Posted: August 22, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Make sure you have your coffee before you start reading this.  It’s a long post and no pretty pictures.

For the past several months we’ve been on tour, taking in various public spaces around West Virginia, talking about what works and ignoring whatever shortcomings the places might have.  One of my self-imposed rules in writing this blog is to be positive.  It’s just too easy to criticize what someone else has done, and it’s not fair when you don’t know the constraints they had to work with.

A couple of weeks ago I told you about driving around Charleston with my wife on a Friday evening, looking for an outdoor place to go where we could hang out, maybe have a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.  Fortunately, we stumbled onto the Live at the Levee event and had a nice evening.  Had it been a Thursday, we would have likely gone home less than satisfied.

I think we were subconsciously looking for the Charleston equivalent of Huntington’s Pullman Square.  I keep coming back to Pullman Square because it works.  It’s a place designed for people to enjoy every single day, not just at special events.  On any given day you’ll see a variety of people from skate boarders to college professors to wealthy professionals.  Why aren’t there more Pullman Squares?

Pullman Square is a private development.  Maybe a private developer will someday provide the same kind of space in Charleston.  But what about my hometown of St. Albans?  Or its sister city, Nitro?  Or Buckhannon?  Or Martinsburg?  Or any number of small towns across West Virginia?  What are the odds that a developer will build a Pullman Square in those cities?

I recently mentioned a post by my liberal correspondent, Joseph Higginbotham, in which he talked about what he missed about living in Lexington, Kentucky.  Joseph enjoyed meeting people and exchanging ideas and wishes Charlestonians had both the inclination and opportunity for such chance meetings.  Maybe the inclination and the proper venue go hand in hand.  In Lexington, his meeting place of choice was a Starbucks.

I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen at the Pullman Square Starbucks.  In Williamsburg, Virginia there’s a coffee shop called Aroma’s.  Yeah, it’s a tourist draw but it’s also a place where William & Mary professors and students meet to talk about…well, anything and everything.  I’ve seen and experienced similar interactions at the local Panera’s and Tim Horton’s.

Coffee shops (sometimes with food, sometimes not) are where people go to hang out.  Sometimes to meet people (while pretending to work on their computers).  Sometimes to meet a friend.  Sometimes to be by themselves and figure things out.  Sometimes to watch everybody else.  I imagine some people go to drink coffee.  But more often than not, coffee is the excuse.  Let’s face it: nobody would go to Starbucks and just sit at an empty table.  Coffee may be the excuse but coffee is also the juice of social interaction.

I am convinced that if Pullman Square didn’t have a Starbucks, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular.  I probably wouldn’t have made my first visit if I hadn’t been able to buy a cup of coffee.

So if coffee shops are so important, why doesn’t every city open a downtown coffee shop?

Having been involved in downtown development organizations, I’ve heard many times statements that go something like this:

“What we need is a _______.”

Fill in the blank with your own answer.  I’ve heard everything from bookstores to art galleries to ambitious dreams like a Spaghetti Warehouse.  A common answer is a coffee shop.  But its one thing to see the need and something else entirely to make it happen.  Ideally, demand, demographics, and opportunity collide and an entrepreneur with the wherewithal to make it happen will step in and fill the need.

In the perfect business model, the coffee shop will have opportunities for outdoor seating, which leads to spillover into other public places.  As more coffee drinkers make their way to the shop, another entrepreneur sees the opportunity and opens an ice cream shop.  Another opens a bookstore.  Then an art gallery.  A frame shop.  A furniture store.

But many of our small downtowns are economically challenged.  A streetscape project is a good first step, but it’s not an instant solution.  You’ve got to figure out a way to bring people downtown.  It can begin with coffee.

So if coffee is the juice of social interaction and the coffee shop is the new social venue, does every small town have to wait for Starbucks to show up?   Not necessarily.

Periodically a city will outgrow its town hall and look to build a new one or remodel an old building.   If the leaders care about their city, they’ll locate their new town hall downtown.  The outskirts of town might be where the action is, but government shouldn’t be taking valuable real estate that the private sector would be glad to take care of.  Downtown needs city hall.  And the city needs a healthy downtown.

Next, serve up the coffee.  In the new town hall, set aside a few hundred square feet for a coffee shop.  Set it up specifically to be a coffee shop.  Lots of windows, access from the outside, good seating both inside and out.  Take bids and offer a lease to the highest bidder.  Or offer a lease that’s too good to pass up and request RFQ’s and take the best plan.

People coming to the town hall for business might have a cup of coffee afterward.  The shop might become an informal gathering place before city council meetings.  The morning coffee group that meets at the local fast food eatery might just find a new place to meet occasionally.

Take the idea a step further.  In planning for the new town hall, include a town square.  It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be carefully planned as a place where people can get together and meet, talk, watch people…you know, everything we’ve been talking about for the past several months.

The point is, we don’t necessarily have to wait for the private sector to save our downtowns.  All we have to do is plan to provide better opportunities for people to get together.  We can have more Pullman Squares.  We can have more Lexington-style hot spots.  It just takes a little vision and leadership.

Time for a second cup.

  1. Nelle Chilton says:

    Once again, juice for thought . I’m sure you are aware Taylor books and Ellen’s Ice Cream, while both are mostly indoors are our gathering spots downtown. In the evening, Bistro seems to be the place at least for a certain crowd and that neighborhood. I agree planning for gathering spots would be great idea what do they need beside good coffee? I for example think it would be great to plan for such in the proposed new library. What attracts people? out door seating? easy parking? good coffee? comfy seating? central location with lots to go to or come from?

    • Joseph Bird says:


      Thank goodness for places like Ellen’s and Taylor Books. I’m also a fan of the Capitol Roasters, both downtown and at the Capitol Market. While all of these places are great, the opportunities for gathering outdoors are limited. I’m advocating for the town square concept. If governement is by the people and for the people, what better way to bring government and people together than in the town square?

      I’m glad you mentioned the future downtown library. I hope the planners include a true public space (yes, with a coffee shop) and not just throw some benches in along the entry plaza. The Charleston Alliance has some terrific concepts that will continue the renaissance of that area There will be opportunities for the development of more of interactive public spaces.

  2. NIce post. If you haven’t done so already, you know which Linkedin group to plug this on.

  3. Joseph Bird says:

    My Huntington correspondent Tom Bell reminds me that while Pullman Square is a private development, public dollars were involved which helped make the whole thing possible. It was obviously a very worthwhile partnership.

    • Joseph Bird says:

      I agree, Debra, and there are other places really good for chance meetings. Lola’s is another. Charleston as a whole is very progressive in looking to meet the needs of its people. Haddad Riverfront Park, the Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace, Capitol Market are all testaments to good things happening. I also know there are groups working right now to improve other public spaces in Charleston. Charleston is fortunate to have people who care about creating good public spaces and understand how important it is. I’ll have to check out Frutcake. Sounds like another winner.

  4. Debra Martin says:

    I think we have an equally interesting place to gather in downtown Charleston at Taylor Books and Ellen’s Ice Cream across the street. Both have outdoor seating and the kind of atmosphere that invites chance meetings and lots of people watching. Another inviting place to hang out is developing on Washington Street, with the opening of Frutcake, which has outside seating and is across the street from the dog park. Good things are happening in Charleston . . . sometimes we don’t give them enough credit because they’re not national chains.

  5. Rick Lee says:

    Ellen’s and Taylor’s are both good, but the outdoor portion is really limited by two things… too small sidewalk space and too many panhandlers.

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