According to reports by a member of the epitasis-list, the Xando coffee bar has closed.
Now most of us here on the West Coast probably think that the problems of two little coffedrinkers in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans, but…
Well, It’s a special place. I’ll explain:
On the corner of Elm and Park Streets in New Haven, Connecticut there is a large brick building which was at one time a firehouse. After the city no longer used it for firefighters and trucks, the building was sold and turned into a restaurant called FitzWilly’s. I may be skipping aeons of history, but this is all I know.
My family used to go to FitzWilly’s on special occasions for dinner. It was a nice place. Lots of brick and brass, and so many huge plants it was like a brick jungle. The upstairs section was open and inviting, and the space was — quite literally — grand. It was not a cheap restaurant, but it wasn’t prohibitive either. I went there for my first take-the-girl-to-dinner date, so it couldn’t have been that expensive.
Anyway, one of the things I’m remembering right now about FitzWilly’s was that my stepfather knew someone there. I don’t recall who. It could have been a waitress or a chef, or it could have been the owner. I didn’t pay much attention. In those days, I tried not to pay any attention to Walt’s friends or Walt himself for that matter. But the more I think about it, the more I’m remembering that everywhere we went, Walt knew people. Walt had friends from many walks of life. I remember having dinner with Walt’s doctor, and coffee with a police detective who would drop by from time to time. Walt introduced me to Ken Lassen, who runs Louis’ Lunch, the original hamburger joint (historians can argue about this one). I’m just now coming to understand how rich my experience with a special place like New Haven is.
I don’t mean to speak about Walt as though he or his friends were dead, but he and my mother moved away from New Haven at about the time I started college. I know he’s kept some of his connections, but I have little connection to any of his connections anymore, so to speak.
I find it a little sad to remember, too, that I made some brief but important connections in that town. When my domestic tranquility was interrupted by a neighbor who thought domestic violence was better for the neighborhood, I got to talking to the Police officer who came to investigate. Turned out he is a bicycling enthusiast, as I am. Then I started seeing him on the beat, and occassionally we’d run into each other at the chinese take-out place and he’d ask me about my bike. The proprieters of that take-out place knew me well, as they’d seen me periodically since the days when I’d skip school with my girlfriend and get some fried rice and rent a movie.
Beyond my own nostalgia, though, there’s something about New Haven that I can put my finger on. New Haven is not a place for chains and malls. Sure, there are strip malls around the city, and no shortage of Walgreens, but the preeminent music shop is Cutler’s. Coconuts and Strawberries have tried to compete to no avail. Starbuck’s cowers at the thought of entering a market already saturated with excellent coffee.
I won’t try to hold up New Haven as a place of peace and balance; it has more than it’s share of problems. But as much as I’ve always complained about how horrid the New Haven Mall is, I can look and smile and honestly say that I’m glad to have grown up in a place with so much to offer without being forced to rely on huge corporate chains. I grew up in a place where the mall was the suckiest place to go shopping.
Dominos Pizza struggles in New Haven; Pizza Hut doesn’t even try. Barnes & Noble only recently found its way into New Haven, and that was by entering into a contract with the Yale Co-op to run the Co-op bookstore — under Yale’s name, not Barnes & Nobles’.
Forgive me for adding digressions on my digressions. FitzWilly’s closed sometime in the late eighties or the early nineties, and this beautiful brick building stood mostly dormant for a number of years. Someone tried to open a dance club there, and that didn’t last. But then, in 1995, Xando moved in to the building.
I liked Xando. It was one of the few places that drinkers and non-drinkers could fully share. Easily the largest coffeshop I’ve ever been in, it took the entire building that had housed FitzWilly’s and the fire station before it. Upstairs there were crazy couches around small tables, and always there was some kind of jazz floating through. During the summer, the windows folded out over the sidewalk, and someone outside could lean on the same bar on which the coffee drinkers on the inside rested their elbows. The coffee was good, and I hear the beer was too.
It was in Xando that I first thought of abandoning my office for a cell-phone and a laptop computer. Perhaps I should have thought more seriously about it.
According to unsubstantiated rumor, Xando has closed. Apparantly the Barnes & Noble cafe, cleverly disguised as the Yale Co-op cafe, took away too much of its business. These things happen. We all wondered how a coffeeshop could afford the lease on a building like that.
It means that once again, that building will be vacant and that corporate America has scored one more triumph over the American dream, or my dream for America anyway. What makes this defeat particularly bitter is that it happened in New Haven, which, with all its faults, still has thriving local businesses. One has to ask how soon before Starbucks comes in. Already there are people in America who will never know what good coffee is, people who don’t know that the person behind the counter at the record shop should be an expert who can track down rare vinyl because they want to keep your business, not a kid out of high school hired at minimum wage on the promise of an employee discount for his Pearl Jam CD purchases.
We’ve lost some very special ground.
I was in Xando right before Thanksgiving. I had coffee there with a friend and with my partner. We were visiting and we swept through town too quickly to see everyone we wanted to see, and those we did connect with, only for too short a time. I’m glad that I got a chance to see Xando one last time, and I’m glad that she got to be there, too. I think she saw the years behind me when we visited. I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I knew I had to tell it goodbye.