A Love Letter to Our Local Gathering Places

I’m feeling moved to write about my favorite coffee shop, tucked into my little corner of the US in Durham, NC.

There’s a feeling of walking in, a vibe created by art and music and the way people have spread out or gathered into tables and corners. The menu is full of beautiful lattes and teas, the baristas warm and friendly, in a way that can help shift the stress of a bad day into one that feels more hopeful.

There’s thought and design in all aspects of the space. When you take a moment to notice, you can follow intricate detail to intricate detail, all over the shop, including to the ceiling, where figurines hang from invisible strings, seemingly dancing, casting shadows along the wall.

This place was dreamed up by two hard-working, warm-hearted people who have worked to raise up the community as they’ve grown, creating living wage jobs and career-track opportunities for those they hire. There’s intentionality in everything in the space. While it’s so easy to grab a coffee and mindlessly go on with your day, you feel the thought and deliberation in the drinks they serve, even if you don’t stop and consciously notice it. If you stop and pay attention to the space, the details will jump out at you and you can’t unsee the magic. You realize it’s the same with what you receive in your cup, the names of the drinks on the menu, the names given to the different varieties of in-house roasted coffee lined up on the shelves.

My home coffee shop, Cocoa Cinnamon, is one of the hearts of Durham. It’s a refuge, a place of bold idea exchange, a space where deals are made between business owners and stories captured to the page by writers. It’s a place to collaborate and a place to nurture dreams. I’ve met people who would become clients there and been offered steadfast the support of friends and former colleagues as I’ve worked to get my business up and going.

It was at Cocoa Cinnamon that my then two-year-old daughter fell in love with Kelly, one of the baristas, who took the time to smile at my little one and entertain her curiosity, and is now a beloved and trusted friend who takes care of our girls on our rare night out. It’s where, on a Saturday morning, in an effort to give my sweetheart a few hours of additional sleep, I can take the joyful noise of my two small children to get a coffee for myself and a baked good for my kids to share. As we enter, we’re nearly always greeted by Tom, another regular and an English professor at Duke. He always puts aside his work to speak with my kids and show genuine curiosity about their thoughts and their worlds.

University students and staff from Duke’s medical center, creatives and folks working remotely, entrepreneurs running their business from a corner table, activists making the world better, retirees, families with young kids, groups of friends laughing together, all there together. More than just a place to get a cup of coffee or a latte, it’s a space to think, to create, to connect, to join in, to feel seen. To meet friends and possibly find friends who, over time, become a part of your family, as the owners and others we have had the grace of meeting at Cocoa Cinnamon have become to me and my family.

With universities, businesses and local schools closing to keep our communities safe from contagion, and with all of us wisely heeding the advice to stay home, I worry about Cocoa Cinnamon, and about whatever local place, whether coffee shop, diner, tea house, bakery, bookstore, restaurant, pub, shop or anyplace else, that is your Cocoa Cinnamon. In this unprecedented season of social isolation, I worry about ability of these small businesses, which provide so much to our communities beyond the goods and services that they make money on, to weather this series of closures as we all hunker in to help “flatten the curve” and try to mitigate the greater impacts of this virus. These places that are our homes away from home, the heart centers of our neighborhoods or entire towns. The places that give the physical as well as energetic space to create some of our better moments, work output, ideas, personal connections, and simple Saturday morning memories.

I want these places to all be standing strong when it feels safe to gather again. I want to know they will be there to welcome us back because we’ll need them — to reconnect with each other, to collectively process what we’re all about to experience apart. We’ll need these places again to provide space to write about it all, to meet with others to birth the business or social change ideas that came from this disruption, to sit together and take steps to help those who suffered losses, whether of health, or of loved ones, or financial. We may just need them as spaces to finally be out of the house, to experience the privilege and joy of a cup of excellent, skillfully poured coffee made by someone else, where there’s so much thought and intention behind it, even the parts we can’t see.

Not all of us have the luxury of having extra funds to spend at this time, yet for those of you who that do, please consider:

Ordering your coffee from a small roaster like Little Waves (which is a part of Cocoa Cinnamon). Or buy your beans from your local café or roaster. It may cost a bit more than the grocery store, yet beyond being so much better, the extra dollars will help people continue to spend those dollars in your community, to keep their employees paid, and their café doors open.

If you have gifts you wish to give, or thank yous you wish to offer, consider giving the gift of an experience at a local place to be enjoyed when all of this passes. The anticipation of the experience, whether it’s indulging in a book from a local shop, a dozen cookies from a beloved bakery, a meal at a favorite restaurant, and so much more, is a gift in itself as the receiver weathers isolation and the fear of current events. It’s the gift of something to look forward to, which can be a greater gift than the experience itself.

Maybe buy yourself a gift certificate (you can do it online!)– even an amount as small as $5 can provide beautiful experience. Print it out and put it someplace you can see it at least a few times a day. It’s a reward to dream about for when this passes, a date with yourself or a loved one. My $5 gift to myself is the anticipation of a latte at Cocoa Cinnamon and the hour I’ll take to consciously sit, reflect and write while I enjoy it.

Please encourage your friends to shop local and encourage your employers to support local businesses when company gatherings happen again. If your employers wish to boost morale of its staff as they continue to carry out the mission of your organization from home in these very unusual times, encourage them to patronize local businesses. Gift certificates can be bought online and sent digitally.

As I read recently from my wise friend Ivy Ingram, just as illness can be contagious, health can be as well. I also believe that just as fear is infectious, so are hope and positivity. Sometimes a slightly larger tip in the jar and a warm expression of gratitude can help someone shift a bit out of fear, and into the sense that they are cared for, and that simple thought makes things seem better, and that so much more is possible.

Fielding Arnold is a landlocked sailor, nomad with roots. Mama to two tiny teachers and founder of thirdmast.com

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