Downtown Durham has become somewhat of a mecca for the do-it-yourself type with entrepreneurial spirit and artistic sensibilities, and for Lori Shakespeare, founder of Blue Coffee Company, that's a coffeehouse crowd. "This area is ripe to grow the coffee culture," says the veteran barista as she shuttles between the two Blue Coffee locations, "and business is good. I love the coffee business and I'm passionate about the product, but I wanted to create a real community space, a place where people can gather as well."
In nearly two years at the Corcoran Street location, a cavernous space with two full walls of windows and two large seating areas, Blue Coffee has hosted a wide range of community events, often opening well beyond normal business hours to accommodate event patrons. "Normally only the Ninth Street location is open nights and weekends," says Shakespeare, "since Downtown is pretty dead then. But if people want me to open for an event that they are willing to plan and promote, I will be there making coffee." Several groups have already taken advantage of this generosity, including Carolina Pride, who hosted a singer-songwriter showcase; the Hip Hop Against Racist War organization, who have hosted two successful shows there in recent months; and Southerners On New Ground, who hosted a visiting author and fundraiser. Other events include poetry readings and various group and club meetings; weekly children's story hours have also been a big success.
This idea of intermingling fairly homogeneous groups in public spaces has worked surprisingly well. A group of hip-hop peace activists might not ordinarily be something a Friday night coffeehouse crowd is exposed to; mothers with young toddlers might not expect to feel so welcome in a quiet, modern space, normally filled with students and businesspeople hitting the books or having lunch with their laptops. Blue Coffee strives to accommodate and encourage a sense of community between both the individual and the groups. Coffee culture may be thriving, but it isn't always this diverse.
At the cozier Ninth Street store, which boasts a sunny, glassed-in storefront upstairs and a large downstairs room with ample seating, several patrons work on computers. A flyer for the Ninth Street Shakespeare Club lures patrons to a discussion of The Tempest and an eclectic art collection graces the walls. The spacious and somewhat more urban-styled Corcoran Street store features the works of several local artists who are refurbishing an old building in hopes of helping to create an outlet for creativity and a vital arts community.
Will Carter, one of the founders of Arts Integrity, is grateful for the existence of Blue Coffee. "We want to make the old Rhino building into studios and apartments so artists can live and work in the Downtown area. Lori lets us keep placing work in Blue Coffee--she's never really said we have to take the show down. It's a big help because while our space is being worked on, we can keep showing and cycling new work through there, and it's right nearby."
Carter's building at 808 Washington Street, which was one of the venues for the Meanwhile Art Show last weekend, is an example of another project that many hope will signify a revival for Durham and a boon to the arts community. The Meanwhile event got patrons walking around the downtown area, seeing what is changing and also what opportunities are still available for development. "For Sale" signs and construction fences break up the flow, but a walk through downtown reveals refurbished professional offices, ample on- and off-street parking, and the potential for a thriving urban community. Projects like Carter's bring the vital element of mixed-use development, a space where people can live and support more than just nine-to-five office-type businesses and late-night bars.
Blue Coffee Company is one downtown addition that has the potential to grow and change with its clientele, and to provide an alternative hangout to the bars that currently dot the downtown landscape. "I play around with the hours we're open, trying to find the right schedule. If the customers come to support it, the hours can change," says Shakespeare.
For Shakespeare, after 10 years in the business--including a stint managing seven stores in the Denver area for industry giant Diedrich Coffee Company, and graduation from law school--juggling the two stores is a labor of love. At one time she thought she would get the stores open and running and quickly move on to something else, but this summer the stores will celebrate their first and second birthdays. "I'm running back and forth a lot, and I'm putting in a lot of 14-hour days, but I wouldn't be doing this after all these years if I didn't enjoy it," she says, between a run to the bank downtown and a dash to Ninth Street. "I'll keep being flexible about opening the space up to just about anyone who needs a place for people to gather."