The Coffee Storehouse
Harriet Halliday Renaud

            On weekday mornings, twelve of the thirteen stores on The Square rarely opened to more than a lone browser, usually a bemused slow-mover who fingered the merchandise, disrupted small displays, and sounding aggrieved, asked the prices of clearly marked items. Or sometimes, just as the door was unlocked, an off-campus street pair with sleep-encrusted faces would appear as though the draught of the door’s opening had sucked them in like dried leaves, and move soundlessly through the store, twitchy and careful, not touching anything, only shopping around vaguely for something to rip off.

            But by ten after ten, The Coffee Storehouse, on the corner, was as crowded as though it had been open all night, ceaselessly issuing the numbered tabs that proved who was entitled to be waited on next. Because The Storehouse was not large in terms of square footage, and because two different kinds of coffee were brewed in electric pots that dripped sixty cups each, the spiced air in the store was always soft and moist, an invitation to linger, although this was not encouraged.

            Most of the customers, some of whom came from a distance, were there for the coffee beans, which they bought to grind at home. Overall, of the twenty-seven different kinds offered, the partiality for the secret Top House Blend was unquestionable. But the roasts—French, Italian, Viennese—were extremely popular, and the Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Kenya, and Sumatra beans all had especially faithful followings. When an aged Sulawesi was added, the entire preference list shifted to make room for it in the top five.

            The teas and spices, added after the first year, had become a significant adjunct almost at once, and while the more familiar teas were the most profitable, the Sri Lanka, the Golden-tip Assam, the Chunmee green tea, and the semi-fermented were in steady demand, as were the Maté, Passion Flower, and Buckthorn herbs.

            Beginning in the morning and continuing steadily throughout the day, the coffee drinkers, many of whom met at The Storehouse regularly, gathered in the corner near the great urns and leaned against the counter and walls. They gestured with their styrofoam cups in the fragrant, laden atmosphere, punctuating the pleasant burble of talk.

            Those who were strictly purchasers lined up with their numbers in the aisles on either side of a long center table display of splendid brewing paraphernalia: German and domestic grinders (manual and electric), French and Italian stainless steel and glass drip-pots, Turkish ibriks in chased copper and brass, Japanese infusers for tea and coffee in metal and plastic, espresso machines (one priced at $1484), and a worldwide selection of coffeemakers and teapots to be used with filters, usually of paper (some fluted), or of fine gold mesh.

            There were benches for customers outside the store, but in the mornings particularly, these were taken over by fathers in ragged drawstring pants, sleeveless surplus army jackets, and exploded sneakers, giving bottles to infants, rocking worn canvas or peeling rattan buggies, or monitoring barefoot toddlers careening and tumbling in the leafy shadows laid down by the safe morning sun.

            Inside, before noon, The Storehouse ordinarily was attended by women, many of them wives or widows of professors and administrators from the nearby university. The older ones were women who had once been ardent family and house managers, with prescribed duties as faculty wives. They had, for many years, given the requisite numbers of dinners and cocktail parties, joined the walking and Ikebana and Bach choral clubs, volunteered at the university health service. And each quarter, muted as stage geishas, wearing small-figured print dresses, the hairdos of their own undergraduate days going dusty, they had handed about buttered toasted muffins to groups of generally scruffy, surly students in the family living room. They were so clearly not the champions of their own lives that the students, removing themselves from such an exemplar of defeat, erased them and chewed their offerings dismissively.

            Now, untethered from many of the purposes the women had slowly discerned were peripheral to their own, and from others that had dissolved in time, they were emerging from their fevered domesticity as quirky women with cool eyes, quick polished smiles, and unexpected style.

            Even in the morning, there buying or drinking coffee at The Storehouse, there might be a woman in a long woven skirt of a deep jewel color, with a heavily embroidered jacket gathered into a peplum. Or someone in hand-dyed harem pants with an appliquéd butter-soft suede tunic. Sometimes there would be the women who, over a subdued oyster gray wool suit, often wore a challis Czechoslovakian shawl, ends knotted, the densely printed flowers and foliage flowing over one shoulder. And one improbably red-haired woman, wearing a Japanese quilted Chanchanko vest that glowed with shadowy temples in reds and golds, combined it with velvet pants tucked into glove leather black boots lightly etched into gold. Over all, there was occasionally a husband’s or son’s school-lettered cardigan, flung over the shoulders like an old towel.

            They came down from their beautiful homes in the hills, walking the whole or partway for the exercise. A few occasionally rode bicycles, their adventurous clothes billowing, the ends of their head-scarves whipping fiercely, or the brims of their hats standing straight up in the wind. Children had been known to point and shrill at them, “Here comes a witch,” but this happened less and less.

            In the store, they greeted one another warmly, but only hugged the visiting foreigners, whom they kissed lightly on each cheek and spoke to softly in their nice American French or tourist-tape Spanish. Those whose husbands were, or had been in certain branches of the social sciences, and had been exchanged to a university in Norway for an academic year (Oslo, or Bergen, or even northern-most Tromsø), sometimes smiled a remark in Norwegian, to acknowledge the shared experience.

            Frits Baatsch, whose store it was, gathered at one point or another that these women’s children, who had quickly become fluent in Norwegian, had as quickly lost the language entirely. What they’d remembered the longest was the caramel-colored cheese they had loved so much when it was passed out in the schools for morning and afternoon snacks—a custom strange to them. When, in time, the same cheese became available in the supermarkets in their own country, none of them cared for it at all. Frits watched and listened to the women as they commented on this natural perversity with their gentle, wise, rueful laughter.

            It was one of Frits’s pleasures to listen in on and watch these women because he liked everything about them—their fugue of languages that drifted just a little above the sound of the back room coffee grinder; what he saw as their eccentric, tranquil distance from stylish contemporania; their slightly abstracted composure; their energy. He imagined how one of them, entering suddenly and swiftly like a character in an opera, wearing a rich-colored cape with a satin lining that sent out twinkles of paisley, would charge the air.

            Leaning on the counter to watch them, in the early days of The Storehouse, they seemed to Frits literally to smell of kindliness and clarity. He saw them as having evolved in a straight line from what he had believed about American girls when he was growing up in Groningen and they crossed over on the moats in groups: that they gave you their quick, wide healthy smile so easily because it didn’t cost them anything. That when you are born on the winning side, you naturally behave as though you have a right to everything, which is why they entered rooms, foreign countries, people’s hearts, as though they were always expected. In the end, Frits had decided it was this, the inborn assurance of a usurper’s rights, that also made the critical difference in the way a girl walked.

            Before The Storehouse gradually became the crowded hub of The Square, and the older women were establishing the pattern of coming in the mornings before eleven, Frits used this privately formulated information to make his careful joke to one or another of them. As an introduction, he would mention that he had grown up in the coffee business with his father and grandfather, in Indonesia and also in a city not very far north of Amsterdam, and that the great brass grinder in the front window that everyone asked about was his earliest memory. So he had brought it with him, of course, for luck and tradition, when he came to this country almost seven years ago now.

            Frits’s flat, leyden blue eyes would watch the women from behind his round, steel-rimmed glasses when he told them these things, and the blood would rise into his square, spare face from embarrassment and pleasure, and make neat red streaks on the tight pale skin over his cheekbones.

            After they asked, as they always did at some point, how he kept the grinder so well-polished (vinegar and salt, he explained; nothing expensive was necessary), he would make a little gesture with his hands on the counter, as if he were marking off the dimensions of a slender rectangle. This was the box into which he put the lies after he told them, and sometimes he was conscious of making the gesture, sometimes not.

            Then, after a pause, he would say, “One thing about being here, in this country, that is nice—many things, naturally—but one thing I will mention, special. Here I do not have to watch Dutch girls walking. The way they walk, it could cause pain, and not only in the heart. They put their feet down—one, two—heavy. Always heavy. Like they have the wish to beat the ground to death. Always people tell me it is the shoes—the wooden shoes. But now everywhere the girls wear a type of clogs—even here in the store now, on campus, even. And now our Dutch girls only wear those wooden shoes for the tourists, and perhaps in the country for performing a chore in a bog—and again, only perhaps. No, I tell you, if you make a Dutch girl go with bare feet, she would still walk with that clump clump, and the ground would still get a bad shock.”

            This always produced the laughter that Frits looked forward to from these women of grace and wit, a bonus for him, in addition, because he had always felt the lack of a nimble tongue. So the lies, told for liveliness, for business reasons, weren’t important, he thought, were neither deep nor fatal. In fact, he hadn’t leaked over in a swill of coffee, as an envious friend once put it; he had never known his grandfather, a Belgian railroad worker; his father had been a wordless man, a grain inspector in a suit and tie; he rented the non-functioning grinder from a warehouse; and there had been eleven years of agonizing stations in this country before he clambered his way to The Coffee Storehouse shackled with loans from the balky husband of a long-transplanted school friend of his dead mother’s, from Rotterdam, and a cousin much-removed who charged him usurer’s interest.

            Frits often thought, when the women listened to him with their healing, absent kindliness, that the important truths sifted through the tattered tales in any case: that they knew their presence transformed his personal history for him, the way a trick of light does a shoddy piece of stage scenery, so that he re-entered the space in his past when, astonishingly, the world suddenly had become a place full of the tumult of hope and promise. He thought they surely knew he would not have arrived in a new country to be wistful and loose in the world, although he could not bring himself to mention the marriage that had brought him across the ocean, a young man afflicted with boundless joy, feverish with bliss, burning with the warmth and energy of love.

            Frits was sure that he would not know how to tell the women, as he had not ever told anyone, how a gloriously lovely American student, exuberant with assurance, fell in love with him one summer in Groningen, and died of a sudden virus on the boat that was bringing them to her family home in a sunstruck seaside community.

            “You mustn’t think it was your fault,” her grief-stricken, distracted parents said, not meaning it, and gave him a small settlement for establishing himself somewhere else. Armored in guilt, Frits moved across the state, and felt he would not have the words with which to explain how finally the memory of the marriage was now as distant and unfocused as an old rumor, although the vise of guilt that clamped his emotions had not yet relaxed its hold.

            Looking around the Storehouse, with his shopkeeper’s counting eye, Frits became aware that reality had been flowing into him, in tiny rivulets. He saw the older women, here and there a steady gleam among the drabbed jeans and sweatshirts, and read their array of signals that they had finished with biding their time. In their presence he had been gathering his courage to believe there might, after all, be a next best hope. And in time he took their appearance as a sign that any attempts he might make at restoring contact with life would be regarded with favor in unknown regions.


            When it was clear that The Storehouse was a success, Frits knew it would be a crime against business sense and his creditors not to open another store. In another five years he had several, spotted in three cities. His visits to The Square become more and more infrequent; he lost the women altogether, and of course there were no others like them. Women like them, Frits knew, who could even for moments convince you that doom might miss you after all, didn’t live in other neighborhoods.

            It had been his great good fortune, he thought, to have been at his Storehouse during The Square’s best time, near the beginning. The changes that had come about had worked against The Square, somehow, had compromised its conviction. On one of his visits Frits saw that no women had arrived to replace his older women, and he saw also that the fathers had come inside, remaking their history. They had made their leap, in their frayed sneakers, into another present, and The Storehouse had acceded to the new times and against Frits’s original intentions, put a bench inside The Coffee Storehouse.

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Harriet Halliday Renaud (b. 1918, NYC) has been a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor since 1935, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar.
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©2016 Harriet Halliday Renaud
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine




February 2016

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