It Wasn't Just a Coffee Shop, Dammit!
Requiem for Another Dear Friend
Last updated: 2020.01.08
I'd like you, if you will, to imagine your Favorite Place Anywhere; the place where you go for sanctuary and shelter from your day-to-day activities; a place without pressures or duties or distractions; the place you go to reflect, contemplate, imagine, dream.
For some of you, it may be a special room in your home. For others, it may be your local church, temple, mosque, or other spiritual center. For still others, it may be a nearby park or natural setting. For me, it was a coffee shop.
It was in San Anselmo, in Marin County, California. It sat on an unremarkable street in an out-of-the-way section of town. There was no way you would stumble on it accidentally. It sat quietly and waited patiently for someone -- usually a good friend -- to introduce you to it. Within lay a quiet retreat wherein one could spend hours in peaceful contemplation, undisturbed by the bustle of urban concerns just a few minutes away.
It was called Lansdale Station. It was my sanctuary, my refuge for reflection.
It's difficult to put into words what Lansdale meant to me. After all, it's just a coffee shop, right? Well, yes, it was a coffee shop. They sold coffees, teas, Italian sodas, muffins, sweets, soups, salads, and something that could be used as pizza in an emergency. They also had tables and chairs at which to sit -- rather less than ordinary as such things go -- some art on the walls by local artists which you could buy, the day's newspapers, and a couple of bookshelves. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary.
Other coffee shops serve coffee and tea and whatnot. They also have tables and chairs, and some have local art, and some have books. But none of them are Lansdale.
Lansdale's qualities went beyond its environmental components. It was the whole atmosphere of the place that made it what it was. It truly was a place where I could -- and did -- spend hour upon wonderful hour just thinking about things.
How can I describe it? Let's see... Though other locations may enjoy a measure of quiet, the very structure of the place tends, at least in my case, to shape or constrain your thoughts. For example, let's say you wanted to write some poetry (let's just say, okay?); some simple rhyming verse or maybe a haiku. Got it? Now, imagine trying to do this in Starbucks. Can't be done, not even in a quiet Starbucks. Why? Well, that's the part that's hard to describe. Starbucks is a place where busy people go to have a busy cup of coffee and think about busy things. Thinking about deeply personal things, or even simply non-busy things, just isn't done. The design, the structure, the intent, the "energy", if you will, of the place makes such imaginings difficult, if not impossible.
In Lansdale, these imaginings were not only possible, they came freely. Lansdale did not impinge or intrude on you. Nor did it embarrass you for thinking any particular thing. Think non-busy thoughts; they would not be impeded. Think deeply personal thoughts; Lansdale would never eavesdrop or divulge them. Think busy thoughts, if you like; they would be clearer here than anywhere else you may know, but you may have found your mind turning to non-busy thoughts as you began to sense the freedom and security that Lansdale gave you.
For all the praise I heap upon it, Lansdale was, in many ways, fairly ordinary. A bulletin board with ads posted by locals hung next to the front door that led into the entry room toward the ordering counter. A clumsy-looking archway led to an adjacent room containing most of the tables. Both rooms had large bay windows that looked out on to the street and, across it, the Bootmaker's shop.
Yet, for all its simplicity, Lansdale was a place that cultivated and encouraged personal thought of all kinds. The lighting was done with very warm, muted incandescents. Though the windows admitted plenty of sunlight, there was never any glare; at night, the tiny colored Christmas lights framing the windows winked softly and unobtrusively (I always took them as a kind of sign announcing to passers-by, "Here happen pleasant things"). Virtually the whole place was built out of dark, unfinished wood (which I often referred to as driftwood). An ugly brown carpet covered the floor, except the area near the rotund black wood stove. You could sit on a stool at the bar in the window and gaze out at the simple uncomplicated view as you nursed your coffee, or select one of the well-used tables and focus on matters before you.
There were also other unusual details that only added to the magic of the place. A few bookcases in each room held hundreds of books left by patrons. The subjects ranged far and wide, from self-improvement to discussions of Einstein's theories to fiction of all kinds. If a book caught your interest, you could buy it ($1.00 hardcover, $0.50 paperback). Over in a corner, next to the bar in the window, on a short pedestal of its own, sat a copy of Webster's Unabridged, always open to a new page, always ready to clarify and educate. And mounted in the archway between the two rooms, for people actively working things out, was a pencil sharpener.
If recreational thought was your preference, Lansdale provided for that, too. In the entry room, there was a wall reaching from the ceiling to about six and a half feet above the floor, which acted to separate the ordering counter from the eating area. At the bottom of the wall was a shelf stacked precariously with dozens of board games: Chess, Go, Checkers, Backgammon, Othello, Yahtzee, Monopoly, Boggle, and others. Just grab what you liked and play.
As for the food and drinks, they weren't especially remarkable; pretty average, in fact, with one conspicuous exception: The muffins. Baked on site every morning in frustratingly limited quantities, they offered blueberry muffins, cranberry muffins, banana muffins, and others. But my favorite by far was the lemon poppyseed muffin. Most such muffins you see today are pre-fabricated uniform characterless cylinders of sweetened cake in greasy paper cup-like forms. Not Lansdale's. Oh, no. Lansdale's muffins were large, big, ugly things that were baked in one of those dinky muffin tins that your mother probably had buried in the back of the kitchen cabinet. There was no pretension that these muffins were ever intended to be the size of those tiny cups; rather, the tin just indicated approximately where to cut the large heaping mass into six separate masses. They were huge, dense loaves that were always slightly overcooked, giving them a crunchy crust, which I loved. They were massive, sturdy things, a single one of which you could rightfully expect to last you through a days-long hike. They were the kind of thing you would have been unsurprised to find in Frodo's pack during his travels across Middle Earth. These were muffins with soul, dammit.
Many times have I sat in a corner next to a window, enjoying a cup of Cafe Mocha and a lemon poppyseed muffin, and thinking the thought of my choice at that moment. I have thought many things in Lansdale. I've thought problems related to my job, about fun ideas, about fantasies, about personal problems, about how to write a piece of software better, about my sweetie, about new adventures in fictional universes created by others, about what I might do tomorrow, and about what I might do with the rest of my life. Lansdale was the place I went to have a Good Think about something, because it was always a warm welcoming place, and it was the place I felt most at home pondering imponderables.
Sometimes I would just read a book. I read J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings for the first time there. A copy of it was sitting on the shelf. I'd owned a copy of the complete set of books for years, but never seemed to get around to reading them. But a beat-up copy of The Fellowship of the Ring sitting on the shelf seemed to insist that I read it, and so I did. As a result, I've always fancied that the inn at Bree at which Frodo stopped on his way to Rivendell was similar to Lansdale.
Other times I would write. I have the use of a Powerbook from my employer, and have written thousands of words in that corner. I would sit and softly tap away at programming manuals, fiction, personal mythology, and these performances for the Semi-Agnostic Pedestrian Theatre. Sometimes, reading one thing would lead to the writing of another. I had gotten about two-thirds of the way through Lord of the Rings when an idea flashed into my mind about how the story might end. It was so clear and fully-formed that I was compelled to write it down. It fell out of my fingers with nary a rewrite. It was like I was taking dictation. I doubt that would have happened as easily somewhere else. (If you're interested, you can read the finished work here on this Website.)
On some occasions, I would be depressed, and it was during these times that Lansdale was most valuable to me. Whatever it was, Lansdale offered me the environment I needed to look at the problem more clearly -- without the kinds of common distractions that would heighten my anxiety -- and enabled me to recognize that solutions existed. I always left feeling better about things, not because the visit itself solved the problem, but because I left knowing that the problem was solvable.
I was introduced to Lansdale about ten years ago by a good friend named James Graham, for which I shall be eternally thankful. That was the day I had my first Cafe Mocha. I've had many since. Some tasted much better, but I always seemed to enjoy them most at Lansdale.
I have imitated James's favor to me many times by introducing my friends to Lansdale. If I especially liked you, if I thought you were interesting, or if I thought you too needed a refuge for reflection, you got an invite from me. Lansdale was not a place to be kept secret or exclusive, but to be shared among close friends. Nor did Lansdale's charm diminish with distance. I currently live in Redwood City, an hour and a half from San Anselmo each way. I visited about once a month, and never got tired of it. I was always welcome, and I always felt better for the trip.
It was my Favorite Place Anywhere.
On the evening of 6 July, during Fourth of July weekend, I had tried to visit Lansdale again, but found the place closed for renovation. I found this unusual, but not entirely surprising; Lansdale's normally ugly brown rug had probably gotten too ugly and was due to be replaced. Yet there was something odd and very puzzling about it. Lansdale's chairs, tables, and bookshelves were stacked out on the sidewalk in the night air, unguarded. More mysterious, across the street, the door to the Bootmaker's shop stood open, shoes spilling out on to the sidewalk; no lights were on inside. Something just didn't feel right here. Over the intervening two weeks, I worried that something bad had happened, that some ghastly fate had befallen either Lansdale or the Bootmaker. Still, I had no concrete evidence to support this feeling, and so managed to convince myself that Lansdale was simply getting a few worn-out things replaced.
You know what they say about gut instinct...
On 20 July, 1996, I drove up to Lansdale. My sweetie, Rebecca, was with me. We were both looking forward to the visit, since we missed our chance two weeks ago. We approached the final stop sign, turned the corner, and saw...
The entire front of the building, formerly a dark and unremarkable brown, was now painted bright yellow. Emblazoned on the front of the building in a black exotic typeface were the words, "Lansdale Station." Below it was a hand-painted paper banner proclaiming, "Grand Reopening Under New Owners."
I fell silent for a moment as I drove past, now looking for a parking spot. "Okay," I said aloud, "it's just the front of the building. No need to panic..."
We parked, locked the car, and with uncertain steps approached the front door. As we did so, I noticed that the painted sign in the window, which used to bear its strongest resemblance to a turn-of-the-century railway station sign, was gone and replaced with a new sign that, to my eye, looked like a permutation of the Grateful Dead logo. We reached the yellow door. We entered...
...And all my hopes for benign change evaporated.
The carpet was gone; the floor was now a polished light-colored hardwood. The wall with the shelf of board games was gone. One of the bookshelves was gone. The bar and stools in the front window were gone. The colored Christmas lights in both front windows were gone. One multi-paned face of the bay window had been replaced with a single sheet of glass. The bulletin board by the front door was gone. The counters had been moved. The classical music that once wafted through the two rooms had been changed to fast-paced modern jazz. The character of the entire place had changed, and now resembled a retro 1930's drugstore.
There were still some things that were the same. The walls were still unfinished "driftwood," the tables and chairs were still the originals, the wood stove and pencil sharpener were still there, and one of the bookshelves and its books remained intact. But they felt like distant echoes now; seemingly half-hearted homages to what once was.
We stepped up to the new, more-efficiently-located counter. I stared off in a half-daze, looking for something, anything, that I could connect to. Out of the corner of my consciousness, I heard Rebecca discussing something with the counter help. Shifting my attention, I quickly pieced together that she had called ahead that morning to reserve a lemon poppyseed muffin (my previous few visits I arrived too late to get one), and that they had forgotten about her request and had none left. Not a very auspicious beginning for new owners...
I absently ordered a Cafe Mocha; Rebecca ordered a slice of carrot cake. It took an unusually long time for them to prepare the coffee. We collected them and made our way to my favorite table. And yet, not my favorite table. It was just a table now. I sat down and stared blankly into my coffee, glancing up occasionally in the hope of finding a warm, familiar sight.
The sunlit sky shone through the now-single sheet of glass, bounced off the bare polished floor, and illuminated the room in a haphazard, indiscriminate light. I glanced beneath the ladder that led to the storage area above us. There, in a box, sat the Webster's Unabridged, closed, atop a stack of other books, presumably from the bookshelf that was now gone from the entry room. I have no idea what fate is ultimately planned for them. I never did spy the board games. I also noticed that the rooms were much noisier, since there was no longer a carpet to absorb the sound.
The harsh light, the brisk music, the loud rooms... This was no longer a place for quiet contemplation. This was now a Busy Place. This was now a place to buy a busy cup of coffee and chat busily with your busy friends about busy things.
I sat in silence, stunned and shattered.
Before I go further, let me be clear: Nothing the new owners did, either by themselves or taken together, is wrong. Hardwood floors are nice. Modern jazz is nice. Brightly lit rooms are nice. Efficient counter arrangement is nice. Retro 1930's styling is nice. Even bright yellow is nice. But none of these things had a place in the Lansdale I had come to love.
I mean, for crying out loud, aren't there enough busy places to buy coffee? Starbucks's are springing up like dandelions after a spring rain, and nearly all the coffee shops that aren't Starbucks are starting to look like Starbucks. You know what I'm talking about, right? Places with unshielded halogen lights hanging from the ceiling, easily-wiped formica table- and counter-tops, an easily-mopped linoleum or tile floor, white sugar in little paper packets rather than in a dispenser, stiff plastic sticks to stir your drink rather than long metal spoons, and a little stack of Frequent Drinker cards by the cash register (buy nine coffees and get one free). Again, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this. In fact, I've got one of those Frequent Drinker cards for Java Centrale all punched out. But, cripes, there are thousands of places like this all over California alone. Do we really need another one? Moreover, did a wonderful, magical place like Lansdale have to be sacrificed to make another one?
I imagine some of the impetus behind the changes was economic. Selling a single Cafe Mocha to a person who then sits in a corner for four hours in blissful self-absorption is hardly the path to Millionaire Acres. Conversely, a busy place moves people through it and makes money. Obviously, the new owners are interested in making money. And, again, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But the character, the energy, the magic that made Lansdale so precious to me had fled; all that was left was a hollow, lifeless shell reminding me of what it had once been.
"Are you okay?" Rebecca asked me.
"I don't know yet," I said.
As a bleak sadness crept up on me, I caught fragments of conversation going on around me...
"Where'd all this light come from?" one man exclaimed. "The feel of the place is totally different." I couldn't tell if he was pleased or dismayed.
"We're not done with the place," said a large man in a cook's smock. "We're thinking of putting in a skylight if we can get a deal on the installation." I presumed him to be the new owner, or at least a principal in the business. "We're also going to paint a mural on the ceiling. Probably an outer space, starscape kind of thing..."
"A mural?" I thought. "A mural?" An image flashed through my mind: I saw a dark-blue backdrop with random white stars, pink and yellow planets with rainbow-colored rings, and a cigar-shaped silver rocket with big curved fins and an orange-and-yellow tail flame. Bits of it would probably be illuminated by ultraviolet light. Absolutely ghastly. (I have no idea if this is in fact what the owner has planned, or even if I overheard the conversation fragment correctly. I don't especially want to know, either.)
It had become clear that the new owner had his own ideas about what Lansdale would become, and his ideas and mine were galaxies apart.
"Well," I said, "can you think of a reason to come back here?"
"...Only for the memory of what this place used to be," Rebecca said.
We finished our respective snacks, took our dishes to the counter, and sorrowfully walked out the door. I did not speak to the owner; I didn't feel it would have helped, and I was too much of an emotional wreck to speak to anyone. We walked the half-block to the car. I opened it, sat down, closed the door, and cried.
And even as I cried, a voice in the back of my mind said, "Why am I crying? It's just a coffee shop..."
I'll admit I'm not a very well-traveled individual, but I've visited a fair variety of places in my life. Absolutely none of them have been so consistently uplifting or happy or provided me with as many pleasant memories or experiences. No other place has offered such a magnificent environment for my thoughts and creative energies. No other place was so wonderful and so warm and so welcoming and so patient and so safe and so nice. There exists no other place that I held in such high esteem.
No, dammit, it wasn't just a coffee shop. It was my Favorite Place Anywhere. And when I say "Anywhere," I mean anywhere. It was the place for which I coined the term, "Favorite Place Anywhere." I revered the place, dammit.
Am I overstating things? Not at all. Nor do I think I let myself get too emotionally wrapped up in it. Lansdale had an enormously positive impact on my life. I think it's only natural that its passing should hurt so much. For what it's worth, my sweetie Rebecca agrees with me. So I suspect would all the other individuals to whom I had the honor of introducing Lansdale. It was an indescribably nice place. And now it's gone.
I'm going to miss the long, lazy afternoons sitting in my favorite corner, writing. I'm going to miss the lemon poppyseed muffins, whose like I've never found anywhere else. I'll miss the quiet and the security. I'll miss the backwards-running clock on the wall behind the counter. And the people... I'll miss the guy who sat near the counter and would play Go (I think) with any who wished; I never took the opportunity. I'll miss the dorfy congenial people who helped behind the counter. And there was one woman I remember seeing on a number of occasions. She was French with dark curly hair and dark eyes. She would drink her coffee quietly at a table, alone, and her thoughtful face would always hold my attention. I never said a single word to her. I'll miss her, too.
Saddest of all is the loss to my friends who never got the chance to visit Lansdale, either due to distance or crammed schedules or lack of opportunity. They will never know the joy of that place except through my recollection of it.
I have no idea what's going to happen next. I would like to believe that there are already too many Busy Places to buy coffee, and that by changing Lansdale to be more like other coffee shops, they took away the reason that people like me went so far out of their way to visit. I'd like to believe that their obscure location and the poor parking will prevent them from surviving on random foot traffic, and that their business will wane to the point that they are forced to either restore Lansdale to what it was, or sell it to someone else who will.
I'd like to believe that. It would mean there is still hope. The damage is not irreparable. I've fantasized about becoming extremely wealthy, buying the place back, hiring a contractor, and having him perform an 'undo' operation.
Until then, I have no place to go to sort out my thoughts, no place to have a Good Think, no extra-special place to take my friends, no refuge for reflection. I imagine that, someplace in the world, there's another place like Lansdale; some other place that can become my Favorite Place Anywhere. But I have no idea where it is. I don't even know where to begin looking.
But if I find it, when I find it, I will know. I will never forget.
I recently made another visit to see if anything had changed for the better. I am pleased to report that all is not bleak.
I visited at night, so there was no sunlit glare from the floor. At night, much of the charm that made Lansdale special for me is still in evidence. The owners have expanded the hours; they now close at midnight on Friday and Saturday (I think). These are also their "talent nights;" the night I visited, someone was attempting to play the guitar and sing. These events have a $3.00 cover, but for that you get a coffee and a sweet. But when that's not going on, it becomes a relatively quiet and thought-enhancing place once again. At night.
The carpet's still gone, so it's still a bit noisy, and they're still playing contemporary jazz. But the last couple of times I was there, I scored the last lemon poppyseed muffin they had, so maybe the Universe is trying to tell me to have faith...
Oh, yes. The proper name of the shop across the street is Shrader Bootmaker. Look in his window if you visit; he does good, creative work.
Often times I have daydreamed about what I would do if the opportunity to buy Lansdale Station ever arose. I've fantasized about taking it over from the current owners, removing most of the things they "improved," restoring all the things they removed, and adding a few minor touches of my own (like a 10-baseT port at every table). I've thought up innumerable details about how I would run the place, the hours I would keep, the kinds of people I would hire, the kinds of coffee and snacks I would serve (like the finest lemon poppyseed muffins on the West Coast), and the kinds of music that would quietly play throughout the day.
I found out about two months ago: Lansdale Station is for sale.
I don't know whether to be jubilant or scared to death...
This is actually two updates. On Christmas day, after leaving the
family dinner, I drove over to Lansdale to stare at the building and
fantasize for a while
When I got there, I found a note on the front door. I stepped up and read it. This is what it said (paraphrased):
3-DAY NOTICE: FINAL DEMAND FOR IMMEDIATE PAYMENT
3 months back rent
It was signed by the landlord's lawyer, and dated 11 December. The deadline had already passed. (The rent charges were also printed on the notice; I now know exactly what it costs to rent that place.)
A few weeks later, I went back up to Marin to visit a dear friend, and in our travels, passed by Lansdale to check its current status.
The shop is still closed, and the curtains still drawn, but the FOR SALE sign is no longer there. Whether this is because the current owner finally sold the business, or because the landlord seized the property, I have no idea.
I'll keep checking...
Made another trip up to Marin about a week ago, and stopped by the building, and discovered...
Someone's moving in!
I spoke to the shopkeeper next door. Evidently, it will be open in about two months after the remodeling is completed, and it will continue to be a coffee shop.
I peered through the windows to see what was going on. The unfinished "driftwood" that made up the walls has been pulled out and replaced with flat wallboard. The shopkeeper also said it was supposed to be a more "open" space.
I'm trying my best not to be worried, and will reserve judgement until I see the finished space. I will, of course, continue to report.
It's been almost a year since the last update. The reason, simply, is that little on the outside has changed at Lansdale in that time. Curtains still block the windows, and the shop is still undergoing remodeling.
However! A mysterious individual, who seems to have intimate knowledge of what's going on, has contacted me via email and informed me that the apparent stasis is in fact due to bureaucratese at City Hall. The new shop owner is evidently navigating a Douglas Adams-esque maze of zoning requirements, health regulations, and permits to re-open Lansdale. There is no estimate on how much longer the process will take. I hope the poor guy isn't paying full rent while this is going on. I'll keep an eye on it.
Also: I discovered shop in nearby Fairfax called Bookbeat that reminds me vaguely of Lansdale. While Lansdale was a coffee shop that had books, Bookbeat is a bookstore that serves coffee. It's a nice quiet little place, and I spent a pleasant afternoon there writing a very odd thank-you note (long story).
However, even more interesting is the place just up the road from Bookbeat. It's a wonderful little space right across the street from the park next to Fairfax City Hall. It used to be a nice restaurant called The Arbor. That went away, and it turned into a Chinese restaurant (name forgotten). Then that went away, and now it's becoming a coffee shop. The people remodeling inside tell me it will be called The Tired Mule. They say it will be open in about two months' time. (Personally, I think "The Weary Mule" would scan better. But then, I think "Gary Larson's Cow" would also be a great name, so what do I know?)
And so here we are, twenty years later. Many things have changed, but one thing remains the same: The search continues.
The building in San Anselmo still has "Lansdale Station" emblazoned on the front, but now it's just an anonymous office space. Across the street, Shrader Bootmaker long ago moved out, now located in Santa Rosa.
Bookbeat in Fairfax is gone. The Tired Mule apparently never got off the ground, and now the site is home to a modestly nice Italian restaurant called Sorella Caffe.
In the meantime, I've spent ridiculous amounts of time at a small regional restaurant called Hobee's, which serves breakfast all day -- which is very helpful if you keep weird hours like I do.
But that special, magical place... Nope, haven't found it yet.