I am not one to believe that a person grieves, gets over, and moves on. For me, the loss of a loved one sends shock waves through my system that can linger for a lifetime. Such are my feelings concerning Baltimore’s, and much of the nation’s, loss, some two years ago, of the Caribou Coffee chain—although I am told that a few outlets remain in distant Minnesota. Caribou was, for me, the Jaclyn Smith of coffee shops when all of the other boys had crushes on Farrah Fawcett (please read: “Starbucks”).
Today, as a honorary member of the latte-drinking liberal elite, I often roam the streets of Baltimore and drop in on the growing number of locally run cafes—Charmington’s, Spro, Artifact, Atwater’s, or Dooby’s—great coffee shops all. I appreciate these cafes for their packeted saccharine and flavored syrups. Still I can’t help but lament the loss of my once cozy and oaken Caribou on York Road. In location, I thought it well-balanced by its next-door neighbor, Well’s Liquors. And with its lattes, it provided me my first serious coffee shop crush.
As with most aroma- and gusta-mances, it wasn’t just one thing that drew me to Caribou, it was that special blend, the full balance of menu items. So that I might never forget, I record a few of them here for posterity. I also find that writing about a loss helps to aid in the grieving process.
- The Caribou latte—my preferred drink. Whereas Starbucks offers two shots of espresso in their “Venti” size, Caribou offered three and didn’t ask me to say “Venti.”
- Caribou computer kindness—For me, coffee and work are cohorts, and I am known to take up in electricity what I have spent on drink. My lost Caribou offered two computer necessities:
- Plenty of electrical outlets.
- Quick and reliable Wi-Fi access. Some shops seem to place time limits on Wi-Fi and it’s not nice. Caribou never teased me with here-one-hour, gone-the-next internet access. They kept the bandwidth coming, and I kept my work and caffeine buzz humming.
- Fun Baristas—The Caribou baristas I spoke with attended college and could converse about history, English lit, or film; they modeled the latest hairstyles, tattoos, and body piercings; they never embarrassed me by knowing my name, but maintained a healthy self-absorption; and they always struggled mightily to improve their foam hearts and ferns.
- Ambient music for the masses—A mix of music that was more soothing and nostalgic than danceable, a soundtrack for work and quiet conversation more than a concentrated listen, and music played not-so-loud that I couldn’t put my earbuds in and listen to my own tunes when I’d had enough of theirs.
- Interior décor—This included reasonably comfortable chairs, relatively spacious tables, long and wide windows to let in sunlight and a view of the parked cars and parking spaces beyond. I have to give special bonus points for the gas fireplaces at several of the Caribou locations. I also much enjoyed the chalkboard quizzes, the correct answer of which could earn 10-cents off any item. How I fondly remember guessing that paraskevidekatriaphobia meant “fear of Friday the 13.” I’ll take that discount now.
When you find that special coffee shop, don’t take it for granted. Cherish and savor it. Make each sip count, and go back for frequent refills.
Having found many of these items at my local Caribou, I became a permanent fixture. Caribou and I had two remarkable caffeinated years together and then it ended. Despite my five-dollar-a-day contributions, Peet’s Coffee of Berkeley, California, descended upon and shot down my beloved Rangifer tarandus. They closed all five of the Baltimore locations, including the one on York Road, claiming that the old Caribous were “Underperforming,” which I suppose was another way of saying they didn’t have any customers. I hadn’t noticed, but had I known, I might have done more recommending. In any case, I was devastated. For me, Peet’s announcement was akin to my parents telling me that the girl I’d been dating simply wasn’t good enough for me, and either I’d break it off with her or they wouldn’t buy me the ‘67 Mustang I’d been begging for.
Caribou gone, I was left scrambling for a coffee shop replacement. Sure, I went to Starbucks once or twice. I even tried Panera’s lattes—mostly warm milk. When I heard that one of my Caribous would reopen in Hunt Valley under the new Peet’s branding, I held out hope, waiting for the renovation to be completed. When it was, I took the twenty-minute trip from the City.
I have to admit, the latte was good, the baristas could talk film, the outlets were plentiful, but I couldn’t help notice, no more chalkboard, and no more trivia quizzes on the chalkboard. When the internet began to get finicky, I broke out in a cold sweat. And in the end, the interior was just too much California shine and sparkle and not enough Minnesota cozy. As the store manager, a holdover from Caribou days proudly informed me, “Peet’s spent more money on the new floor than Caribou spent on most of their interior.” I told him quietly that I wished Peet’s had kept the Caribou fireplace.
Meanwhile the storefront at the former York Road Caribou location remained vacant, the old signage loosening on its hinges. Some nights I would spot a ghostly barista inside foaming milk and wanted to stop in. Eventually, the Caribou sign was replaced by a Verizon one, and two men wearing Izod shirts and khaki pants took up positions on the inside. They seemed always to be speaking to one another until that store closed too.
Slowly, since the death of Caribou, more local, specialty coffee shops have begun to spring up, or at least I have become more aware of them. Several I mentioned earlier: Artifact, Charmington’s, Spro, Dooby’s, and they offer some fine lattes. Several of them can claim all of Caribou’s interior charms as well, certainly more charms than I found at Peet’s.
And recently, I believe I’ve even discovered The One, a more mature, more reliable, local representation of great coffee and interior splendor. It has many of the elements that Caribou had, and it’s even frothed with people, which makes me confident that it might stick around for a while. I’m not going to mention its name. It’s too early in our relationship for that, and I don’t want to jinx anything. Let’s just say, right now, we are blending nicely.
And yet, as much as I make room for this new shop in my life, one never loses their first coffee shop imprint. After allowing the matter to percolate and settle, I’d like to end with a few words to those who haven’t experienced that first blush of coffee shop romance. When you find that special coffee shop, don’t take it for granted. Cherish and savor it. Make each sip count, and go back for frequent refills.
All in this life is fleeting, and there are many things beyond your control. At any moment, the powers that be, whether they be Providential or Corporate, can swoop down and snatch the beloved from your embrace. Should that happen, don’t be morose or bitter; use whatever talents you have to fashion a small memorial—a blog post for instance. And when you feel the sting of grief, return to that memorial for a time, add to it, revise it, edit it, and then move on.