Common Grounds has been my favorite place in the neighborhood, ever since it opened over three and a half years ago. In its salad days it was the Platonic ideal of a coffee shop, miraculously manifested in our dim world of shadows. When I first ambled in there with a stack of papers to grade, the day after it opened, all I was looking for was the sort of thing I look for in any coffee shop: decent java, cheap refills, good ambience and music, a table to call my own. But Common Grounds brought more: great music, plenty of room, (eventually) wireless Internet, and most important of all, good people.
The ‘good people’ bit freaked me out at first, I’ll admit. Within a few weeks of going there regularly, Aaron had asked me all about the class I was teaching, Carrie had given me a mix tape, and Brad had bequeathed to me an industrial-sized can of cranberry sauce. I bristled the first time Brad forced me into meeting somebody else sitting quietly on the other side of the coffee shop with his own laptop—the whole ‘forging a community’ thing seemed a bit cheesy, and I just wanted to get my work done. But he wasn’t doing it because it was part of some big community-forging plan; he was doing it because he thought we might get along, and of course he turned out to be perfectly right. In the end the community happened, not because it was forced, but because the people behind the counter were just being themselves, and that was enough. These things build up their own momentum—none of the people who worked there in the beginning are still around, but the mark they left is indelible. Others have carried it on. I’ve been one of the lucky ones, a regular’s regular, plugged in to the whole scene—I have a sizable passel of friends now who I met at the Grounds, from both sides of the counter. But even for those who don’t take their coffee shops as seriously as I do, the fact that Common Grounds was the kind of place where that that sort of thing could happen meant that it had that hard-to-pin-down trait—let’s call it “hearth”—that everyone can feel. It’s not actually all that complicated. You can sense if a place has it or not right when you walk through the door, by looking at the people sitting around and noticing whether they seem at home, and the people behind the counter and whether they give a damn about the place where they’re at. Decor and music count too, and coffee, but not as much.
Yeah, I’m getting all nostalgic, but there’s a reason: Common Grounds is going away. In a few weeks it’ll have new owners and a new name: Murky Coffee. For the occasional visitors the differences may seem slight. Heck, all they have to do is keep selling coffee and keep the free Internet and most folks will keep coming back. But will the new place have any sense of hearth?
That’s not a question that can be answered until it’s up and running under new management, but the signs so far are troubling. Take, for example, the letter from the new owner, Nick, posted by the counter:
Dear valued Common Grounds customer,
There’s no easy way to say this, but here it goes: We would like to formally announce that within the next few weeks, Common Grounds Coffee and Tea House will cease operations. In its place will open “murky coffee arlington.”
We started murky coffee in a tiny spot on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown in 2002. We quickly gained notoriety as the hands-down best coffee in all of Washington, DC, with many baristas from other coffee shops around the city coming to us for what emerged to be the only real espresso in DC.
Currently, we have a thriving shop right next to Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Coffee-lovers from all around have been coming to experience what can only be called, “The next level of coffee and espresso.”
Featuring the amazing, everything-from-scratch breakfast pastries from Hawthorne Fine Breakfast Pastries of Severna Park, Maryland, coffee from Mayorga Coffee Roasters in Rockville, and the renowned Malabar Gold espresso from Josuma Coffee Company in California, we have definitely lived up to our motto, “Totally committed to serving the people of Washington the best damn coffee there is… Yes, we said ‘damn’”
Common Grounds has proven to be a very important place for a lot of people, and please be assured that we are very sensitive and respectful of that relationship. We hope that you’ll like what we’re going to be doing here, and we welcome your feedback. We can be reached at email@example.com, and be sure to check out our website at www.murkycoffee.com, where we’ll be posting more information about the transition in the future.
Thanks, and God bless!
Nick & Suzy Cho
From a rhetorical perspective, this letter is a disaster. Presumably its intent is to announce the change to CG regulars, answer their questions, and assuage their anxiety. But the bulk of it is dedicated to an extended brag about the quality of murky’s coffee. “The only real espresso in DC” implies that everyone else’s, including the espresso of the Common Grounds we know and love, isn’t real. The motto conveys two ideas, both of which are wrong: 1) the quality of the coffee is the most important thing about a coffee shop; 2) “Oooo! We used a swear word!” is an amusing component of a business motto. The words of assurance, which should have been right there in the beginning, are found in the last paragraph. All in all, the message of the letter is “Ho boy! Things are gonna change around here!” It says not “we hope you’ll keep coming here,” but rather “We hope that you’ll like what we’re going to be doing here.”
Admittedly, my reaction to the letter is colored by the comments that followed it on the website:
I’d like to welcome the customers of Common Grounds to our website. Change, the sort that is coming to ‘The Grounds,’ is never as smooth or as easy as we’d like. All we can really say is, we took over our current location that was a place called “Stompin’ Grounds,” a place not unlike Common Grounds in many ways.
We were able to transform a beloved coffeeshop that served BAD coffee, mediocre baked-goods, and had a somewhat aimless character, into a MORE beloved place with the best coffee in the city, the best baked-goods, and a ‘vibe’ that people love. We want everything to be the best, because we truly care about people… and people deserve the best. Don’t you? Aren’t you a people?
Feel free to e-mail us anytime with questions or comments. We’re pretty good about getting back to people that way. Cool?
You have to read that pretty carefully to realize that he isn’t actually calling Common Grounds a place with bad coffee, mediocre baked goods, and aimless character—he’s only implying it.
So here’s my open letter to Nick:
There is a very slim chance that you will be able make your new place every bit as good a coffee shop as Common Grounds has been. I’m certainly rooting for you. But I’m concerned that you think that because you know coffee—which I will take on faith that you do—you’ve got it all figured out. Remember that you’re taking over a rare, wonderful place, and that you should walk lightly.
Go to Pittsburgh. Look up Brad & Carrie. Bring brownies. Ask them—no, beg them—to tell you how they did it. Listen carefully. Take notes. Then, when you get back to D.C., bake up some more brownies and take them to Aaron and Liz and do the same thing. Be kind and attentive to the current employees—who you are making re-apply for their jobs, a very bad sign—and remember that their morale is the single most important key to your success. Without that, you can have the best coffee in the whole wide world and it won’t be worth a fig.
UPDATE: Nick has updated the Murky Coffee site with a clarification of his original letter and comments. (A direct link isn’t working for some reason.) It sets a much better tone and makes me a bit more hopeful about CG/Murky’s future.