Life

The Pandemic Shuttered My Town’s Only Coffee Shop

What the death of a small business means to the community around it.

A coffee shop with a green lawn
Schoodacs. Ruth Graham

When I first moved to rural New Hampshire from Brooklyn, my husband and I rented a house on a gravel road in a town that somehow didn’t feel like a town. You couldn’t walk around downtown, and there was barely anywhere to go anyway. It had no cohesive center. The nearby town of Warner was different. It was about the same size, but it felt much warmer, with a Main Street that bloomed to life on the weekends with shoppers at an independent bookstore, a farmers market, and two restaurants, one with an actual bar. At the center of town was a new coffee shop called Schoodacs Coffee House, with a big porch and a well-maintained lawn out front that functioned as the town green. We decided to move to Warner six months after Schoodacs opened in 2015.

Last week, Schoodacs’ owner, Darryl Parker, announced on Facebook that he will permanently close the coffee shop, unable to recover from coronavirus closure losses. Parker had decided to close the shop temporarily on March 15, the day before the governor closed bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery. As the state has eased open again, Parker reopened May 9 for a few hours in the morning. But in the following days, he realized the math just wouldn’t work. “We were constantly on the bubble, and hitting something like this, the bubble just burst,” he told me on Thursday.

Parker had been spending $3,000 a month to keep the shop closed as the pandemic spread. Selling a few cups of “no touch takeout” coffee on weekends would not be enough to make up those costs, let alone the additional expense of rehiring employees and buying supplies. Anyway, he could only find one trained barista to hire back, he told me. He guesses this is largely due to the fact that unemployed workers are now receiving an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, in addition to state benefits. Parker doesn’t begrudge his workers that calculation; he closed before he was forced to in part to ensure that his workers would be at the front of the line for benefits. But he can’t compete, and he doesn’t have the budget to wait until the extra benefits expire. He also can’t cover shifts himself, because his primary business is a small website maintenance firm where he already works full time.

Beloved local institutions are shuttering all over the country right now. More than 100,000 small businesses have shut permanently since March, according to a working paper published this month. In New York, the casualties include Pegu Club, a pioneering craft cocktail bar, the Keith McNally bistro Lucky Strike, and two shops owned by the coffee roaster Gimme Coffee. Chicago is losing the 24-hour diner Jeri’s Grill in Lincoln Square (open 57 years); the 15-year-old Restaurante Cuetzala won’t reopen after its owner died of the virus last month. In Atlanta, a family-owned “meat and three” restaurant that had been open for 46 years closed this week. “This virus has taken everything I have worked so hard to hold on to,” the owner wrote on Facebook.

Small businesses are at risk, of course, because they typically operate on much narrower profit margins than big companies. The same is true for what you might call the “culture margin” in a small town compared with a big city. However deeply New Yorkers will mourn a particular shuttered restaurant or bar, they will not run out of places to eat or drink or gather with friends.

Fewer than 3,000 people live in Warner. For this community, losing Schoodacs is shattering. My family and I saw someone we knew at the coffee shop every time we stopped in. Our next-door neighbor worked on his novel there; a close friend hosted a reading series. We bought our Christmas tree on the coffee shop’s front lawn, and visited the jack-o’-lanterns lined up on the front steps in October. On Saturday mornings, my daughter and I made what we called “the Warner rounds”: Schoodacs, library, farmers market. In warm weather we sat in the sun on the porch, and in the winter we chose a game from the communal board game cabinet or chipped away at the jigsaw puzzle on a big table in the center of the room. The banner image for the private Facebook group for local parents (121 members) is a photo of Schoodacs on a sunny summer day.

And businesses like this one have a ripple effect. Schoodacs—named for a local brook with a spelling that is apparently only found in Warner—purchased hundreds of gallons of maple syrup a year from a family farm up the mountain; who will that farm sell to now? It provided a place for local realtors and other professionals to hold meetings; there’s nowhere else in town that can fill that role. What will happen to foot traffic at the outdoor farmers market without a coffee shop next door?

Some of the shop’s influence on the community will outlive it. A few years ago, Parker offered space on the front porch to a small collective of local farmers, in exchange for five gallons of syrup. Customers paid on the honor system, tucking dollar bills into a box in exchange for paper bags of onions and tomatoes on their way into the coffee shop. That was the start of what is now a flourishing “public market” down the street from Schoodacs. The indoor grocery has fresh produce and local meats and dairy, along with cute tote bags and lovely art. The first time I wandered in, I surreptitiously took a photograph to send to a friend: This place exists! In Warner!  

I don’t know what downtown Warner will look like when all this is over. The public market hastily set up an online shopping portal at the beginning of the pandemic, and now offers curbside pickup and home delivery. The bookstore, too, offers online ordering and curbside pickup. The restaurant across the street from Schoodacs is offering takeout and beer. The pizza place is hiring. But the loss of Schoodacs feels ominous.

Meanwhile, the McDonald’s and gas station Dunkin Donuts out by the highway exit will probably be fine. Parker, like other industry experts, predicts the pandemic will accelerate the homogenization of the food and restaurant landscape. National chains will be able to ride out the losses. Many independent entities like Parker’s won’t.

In cities, people described as “the pillar of the community” are often more like celebrities who show up at the right events. Parker, who moved here just five years ago, is an actual pillar. He’s on the board of the Warner Fall Foliage Festival, the biggest event in town. (If this year’s event takes place, it will be the 73rd annual.) He helped launch a local project turning a 34-mile stretch of a former railroad line into a walking trail. He has served on the town planning board, and a few years ago was elected town “almoner,” a welfare officer who administers emergency rent and food aid to people in town. When he and his girlfriend traveled to watch the Iditarod race in Alaska in early March—a lifelong dream—he took a stuffed husky dog with him and sent photo dispatches to the kindergarten class in the little brick school building up the hill from Schoodacs.

Now, Parker is thinking about leaving Warner. He moved here from North Carolina because his now-ex-wife had family ties in town. He lives in an apartment behind the coffee shop, but he doesn’t have much reason to stay now that the shop is closing. His daughter is heading off to college, and he can work for his other business from anywhere. “Schoodacs was my anchor,” he said. And that was true for the town itself, too.

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