Word of Winning Coffee’s coolness reached me before I even got to New Mexico. This was years ago. I was at a warehouse show in Colorado, and the touring band, Rudest Priest, was from ABQ. They were fucking great. After the show, I introduced myself to the singer (who turned out to be Billy the Bunny, the prolific zinester) and said that’d I’d be moving to his part of the world within a month or so.
He congratulated me and said, “Just go to Winning Coffee, and you’ll hear about all the cool stuff going on.”
He was right, as it turned out.
I didn’t move exactly to Albuquerque proper, but to a little town called Tijeras, just east of the city, up in the mountains. Some friends and I had started a little farmstead house that we were calling the Artemisia Collective. We had a dozen chickens, three dogs, and a murderous, half-feral cat named Karma. Part of the property was forested in piñon and juniper, and we had about an acre dedicated to gardening food, herbs, and medicines. National Forest trailheads were just a ten-minute walk down the road.
As you can imagine, it was pretty easy to just stay in the mountains and never go to town. And this kind of back-to-the-land isolation was exactly what I wanted.
It was exactly what I wanted for a while, anyway.
Anybody who has ever lived in community, especially if they’ve done so rurally, knows that you’re only ever two weeks (at maximum) from turning into Jack Torrance from The Shining.
So I got in my van and drove down the mountain. I ended up at Winning Coffee. I didn’t know where else to go. I had three or four cups, wrote, read a book, watched people, smoked cigarettes.
This became my personal ritual, my escape. I’d come to town and hang out there an afternoon or two every week, get a coffee, get a burrito when I could afford it. Because it was just a block away from the University of New Mexico’s campus, there were the expected groups of students and professors. But there were other, weirder folks too, like the traveling kids who needed a place to set their backpacks down. It was at Winning that I learned the best freight yard in New Mexico was just south of ABQ, in Belen, and if you got picked up from the cops, you could get a free ride straight to it. In order to avoid dealing with processing you, the police would just drop you off a town away, where you could catch a train to anywhere you could think of. It was a good excuse to get drunk in public.
There were these goth-ass, Mad Max-looking punks too, with heavy piercings and huge tattoos, wearing painted leather jackets and Discharge t-shirts. They drove old American cars with skulls painted on the hoods and weird spoilers — more sculptural than functional — welded on. There wasn’t a time that I went to Winning and didn’t see them sitting out front, smoking and talking in low, serious tones.
Sometimes, on one side of the café, a bookseller would have set up folding tables and piled them high with used paperbacks. It was searching through his boxes that I discovered the seminal fanzine Burn Collector by Al Burian. I flipped through it, and asked what the price was.
“Just a kind word and a smile,” the bookseller said. He didn’t even know me.
That shit changed my life.
The other patrons would talk to you if you wanted, but if you projected the right kind of vibes they’d leave you alone too, a rare thing for a café. Mostly I was pretty shy. I kept to myself, but it was through hanging out at Winning that I started figuring out when and where DIY and punk shows were happening. I found the cool bars and the queer/vegan/anarchist/occult infoshop. This in turn led me to start (sort of) making friends with folks other than my housemates, people whose names I knew and said hi to me when they saw me.
Back at home, away from my coffee shop sanctuary, everything was starting to go horribly. My depression was just this side of out-of-control. My marriage was falling apart. I wasn’t sleeping. I was constantly broke and stressed out. Everything was fucked.
I ended up leaving New Mexico.
I had to.
It was tragic — I love New Mexico — but leaving was also the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. That didn’t keep it from stinging. I missed the desert, I missed red chili, and — goddamn it — I missed Winning. One time, my friend Kalayjian was driving from El Paso to Boulder, and he stopped in ABQ to snag me a mug from Winning. It remains one of the most thoughtful gifts that anyone has ever given me. I’ve spent a lot of time drinking from it, dreaming about how I would get back down there someday.
In April 2019, I went on tour as the bassist in an indie band. We had a show booked in Albuquerque at a little house-venue on Nob Hill, not far from Winning. On our way to the show, we tried to swing by the coffee shop, but it was empty. I shit you not: Winning had gone out of business and locked its doors forever the day before we got there. Albuquerque, the site of some of my greatest pleasures and many of my nastiest defeats, suddenly seemed a whole lot less magical.
I don’t know. I didn’t even live in that town for a year, but from my perspective, Winning seemed like the heart of Duke City’s weirdo scene. Sure, it served as a music venue and event space, but it was also just a place to hang out. It was somewhere air-conditioned to sit during the day, somewhere to get caffeinated and take a piss and use the internet. Somewhere to see and be seen. Sometimes that’s a big part of what a city needs to keep interesting folks interesting.
Of course, Burqueños are resourceful. The energy will flow to some new project or place, but I miss Winning Coffee more than I ever have.
Nathaniel Kennon Perkins lives in Boulder, CO, where he works as a bookseller and publisher at Trident Press. He is the author of the short story collection, The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019), the short novel, Cactus (Trident Press, 2018), and the ongoing literary zine series, Ultimate Gospel. His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, Noncanon Press, Keep This Bag Away From Children, decomP magazinE, Pithead Chapel, Timber Journal, and others. www.nathanielkennonperkins.com