Coffee Houses Fuel the Social Engine

Break out, and head in to a rural coffee house for brain fuel, live music, wifi, and a climbing wall.

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We pulled off the highway in Rolla, Missouri, and went looking for a coffee shop.

There’s no guarantee every small town will have a good place for drinking coffee and hanging out. But the odds are improving. One of the great things about rural America these days is that most towns have a coffee shop that brews circles around the Starbucks on the Interstate.

Here’s how you locate a coffee shop in a new town: Stop the first person you see and ask. In Rolla, we were quickly directed to the Giddy Goat. The GG is just across the street from the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Inside there were some student-types sitting around while Kristen Arneson did the heavy frothing behind the coffee-making machinery.

“I’m a city girl,” Arneson said. She’d come to Rolla (population about 17,000) to go to school and liked it there. “Rolla’s been good to me,” she said.

One of the best things about rural coffee shops is that they seem to spring up in older buildings near the center of town. The Underground is a massive labyrinth filling an old warehouse near the main street that runs through Searcy, Arkansas. The room is so big there’s space for two rooms for children (one filled with pebbles kids can root around in), a putting green and a climbing wall. Sharyl Holst, who was operating the coffee machinery when we passed through, said The Underground is the largest coffee shop in Arkansas.

Then there was the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro, Maine. (Yes, topless in that way.) An arsonist burned down Donald Crabtree’s business on June 3. Crabtree is trying to raise money to reopen. “A lot of people would like to see us come back,” Crabtree told the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel.

Normally, you don’t find the rural coffee shop on the edge of town. It’s on Main Street or the courthouse square, or close by. Jane Jacobs wrote that “new ideas need old buildings.” In small towns, good coffee needs old buildings, places that used to be the Western Auto, pharmacy or spot where you bought a new pair of Levi’s. Summit City fills an old store building on the Main Street in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Coffee shops become de facto community centers, and you are as likely to find there a kid’s birthday party on a Saturday afternoon (at The Underground) as you are to overhear a discussion of the relative merits of conceal-and-carry laws in Kansas and Missouri (Giddy Goat).

Julie Ardery/Daily Yonder
Jimmy Lowry played guitar professionally in Nashville before retiring to his hometown of Mt. Airy. Before his death in 2006, Lowry regularly performed with a family band at The Good Life coffee house on Mt. Airy’s Main St.
There’s frequently music at the rural coffee shop. The Summit has regular concerts and open mic nights, when guitar bangers from Clintwood, Virginia, or folk singers from Hazard take the stage. The Underground has regular shows, a jazz night during the week and on the Saturday we were there, folk music.  The Good Life in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, used to feature session man Jimmy Lowry, a professional guitarist who retired to his Surry County home and played regularly here with a family band.

Some rural coffee shops are hipper than hip, with vegetarian breakfasts and eco-friendly containers (Check out the Mud Street Cafe in Eureka Springs, Arkansas). Others have a strong local flavor — at Harbor Mountain in McAlester, Oklahoma, you’ll find copies of the high school football schedule on every table, and a placard announcing the upcoming prison rodeo.

Jack Loftis, a native of Mt. Airy, NC, and its mayor,  has a long, keen perspective on life in small towns. “We knew everybody that lived on the street,” said Loftis about former times. Now “very few people know their neighbors more than two doors away. Unless you have that through your churches and civic clubs, you lose that.” Or unless, like the lucky people of Mt. Airy, you have a coffee shop.

Photos of Summit City coffee shop are by Joe Burke/rotcav. All other photos by the Daily Yonder.

 

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