I collect coffee shops. I’ve been in love with the space and the community that coffee shops inspire since 1989 when I stepped through the doors of Arabica on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, OH. The smell of the beans, the people who gathered, the good conversations, and the general convivial tone were a stark contrast to the town I grew up in, where the best you could hope for was to meet friends behind the McDonald’s. Later, I worked in a few shops and loved every moment of it. I was hooked, and as I’ve traveled around the country, visiting the local independent coffee shop(s) is at on the top of my agenda.
In 2010 I was living in Los Angeles. It was a miserable time. Social networks were a welcome distraction from real life, and while skimming the tweets I found a project called The Baristas. It was about a group of off-the-wall characters working in a coffee shop in Pittsburgh. I got curious. Pittsburgh is the longtime rival/close cultural twin to Cleveland. Cleveland was the hub to the wheel of suburbs where I grew up. I was homesick, I hated my current situation, and I wanted something to laugh at. The first episode aired at the end of January in 2011, and when I watched it, something clicked. The setting, the characters…these were people I recognized in friends of my past. The banter took me back to my own days of running a cafe. It was a welcome ray of sunshine within my bleak existence at the time.
No…I didn’t quit my job and become a barista. I did come to the conclusion that I deserved a better job than the one I had, and that Los Angeles was not the right place for me or my family. Within a month, I took a job in Cleveland. Within two, we were home. The bleakness shifted and changed, but many of the pressures were still there; the stress of the moves and the job had taken a toll on the marriage, leading to new issues and hard times of a different sort.
This is when I started wandering on my own. I would get in the car and drive, allowing the road to wash away the stress and lose myself in other places, other sights. At first, I would drive east from our home in Shaker Heights, OH to the woods and hills of Geauga county, stopping off in Amish country, taking in the sights of the fields, the small towns, the different pace and culture. This is when I got it in my head that it would be amazing to be able to just wander the Earth, seeing places, meeting people, and writing about them. But where would I go?
Affogato. The coffee shop where The Baristas was filmed was called Affogato. I looked it up on Google maps. Two hours. It was only two hours away.
I decided, what the hell: I was going to drive two hours to get a cup of coffee. I took off early on a Sunday morning and arrived outside the brick building with the Big Red A on the front just in time to get breakfast from the pancake bar and a cup of good coffee.
Affogato was located in a borough called Bellevue. It had the same sort of bohemian sensibility as Cleveland Heights did back in the 1990s. It mixed the not-so-well-off with the artists and creative folks in a way that makes the most fascinating neighborhoods so worthwhile. I loved it. I decided to make a trip back in August and interview the proprietor.
Affogato was owned by Victoria Dilliott. She bought the place when she was twenty-two and had worked hard to make it the center of the community. When I met her, she graciously allowed me to chat with her, letting me tag along on her supply run to Costco, telling me the long story of the cafe’s existence, about how she and Justin Kownacki (the writer/director of The Baristas) met, about the filming, and about how she was looking to sell the place and move on to something new.
Sell the place. Move on. As a romantic who had only visited three times and connected with the place because of a web sitcom, I couldn’t fathom why she would want to do such a thing. As a man with responsibilities, as one who knew a little about how business worked and who remembered how bad the economy got during the housing bust, I got it. Affogato really peaked in 2005–2007: business was good, there was an active community of independent artists working on everything from Podcamp Pittsburgh to shared office space for small business ventures. When the bottom fell out in 2008, it was hard to make ends meet. All business slowed. After a while, Victoria and her husband were talking more and more about starting a family. She put a deadline of September down. She put it up for sale.
It was close. Damn close. She did sell it in the end. Justin and the cast of The Baristas continued to film there while the renovations by the new owners took place. I visited one more time in February of 2012, but the magic had gone. It wasn’t the same place.
Affogato closed in May of 2012.
Around Memorial Day of that year, I drove past the place on my way to Baltimore. The big red A was gone; it was a hair salon or nail parlor or some such joint. It is the way of the world, few things last; even the Arabica on Coventry is long gone, replaced by a nightclub. Things change. Neighborhoods shift. People move on.
I still have my Affogato travel mug. It makes me smile. In the end, it was never really about the coffee.