The two cafes faced each other like wild west gunslingers: The Fuller Cup and Starbucks. Scarcely twenty paces from one another, the cafes occupied space on a side street just off the main square of Winchester—a quaint, affluent town less than ten miles from Boston. The tiny downtown section unspools in a series of rotaries lined with smart, brick buildings containing artisan, independent stores such as French Lessons, an upscale clothing and lingerie shop and something called The Shoe Hospital, a store cut from the twee cloth of a Wes Anderson movie. That Winchester has a dedicated cobbler or shoe repair place called The Shoe Hospital should tell you everything you need to know about Winchester. On the other side of the rotary, at the end of a block, there is a discrete CVS because this is America after all.
Killing time before a therapy appointment (since November I’ve developed a jangling fear of tyranny, odd I know), I decided to get an iced caffeinated-something from Starbucks, the java overlords that distract us from their mediocre coffee products by offering part-time employees dental and a 401K. I was a little surprised that a somewhat prissy town like Winchester would allow a Starbucks. This kind of corporate pestilence seemed like the very thing Winchester took pains to inoculate itself against, to maintain a posture about the kind of community it believes itself to be. Money consistently proves its deciding powers. There are probably weekly discussions about how to get a Starbucks in the Vatican City—tall, grande, venti, divinity.
I had passed the Starbucks enough times driving through town to know it was impossible to miss. The café squatted on a juicy slab of corner real estate with sight lines on three sides. No matter how you’re coming down the street you can’t escape the green sign with stark white lettering. Congratulations suits, that degree in corporate psychology definitely paid off. The Starbucks sign is as familiar and alluring as a Vegas slot machine. That day I was on foot. As I turned onto the narrow street, I was surprised to see the storefront with its cheery orange coffee cup stenciled onto the long, bay windows of The Fuller Cup café.
There was a brief moment of indecision. Starbucks succeeds on familiarity. Every café store looks basically the same—color palette, wood type, general layout. The Spotify playlists predictable (jazz, indie, Americana). The earnest attempt to spell your name correctly on the cup habitually thwarted. We like familiar. We like known entities. We like feeling that we don’t have to try too hard for acceptance. We willingly proffer our arm to take the anesthesia that numbs us to difference, strangeness, to the effort of meaningful engagement. And for a second I felt myself yield to this impulse, to choose the experience that would actually be no experience at all, that would require very little of me and would give even less in return.
The door to The Fuller Cup is a screen door as if it belonged in one of those seaside places like Provincetown or Martha’s Vineyard. The entire space is probably no bigger than one of Beyonce’s walk-in closets. Art from local artists hang on the wall. The girls working behind the counter aren’t more than sixteen, likely high school students “working at the Cup” for the summer, saving money for college or (more likely) a new iPhone. A group of moms cluster in the front corner, one with a stroller, another with a baby lashed to her chest. I hear them trade tips on sleep schedules and gymberee type programs. Everything under the pastry case looks fresh-baked, a few empty trays bearing the ghostly crumbs of croissants suggest that once goods are gone, they’re gone and not dumped out of a box and thawed for the afternoon rush.
This is a neighborhood place. People gather here who know one another. I’d bet that many who drop in for their daily fill-up know the owner. The conversation drifting up towards the lofted ceiling is personal about lives and families and schools and happenings around town and the harried goodbyes of already-super-late-for-that-thing-catch-up-again-soon. There’s real energy swirling around in this cramped spot. There’s connection. And it doesn’t feel effortful or arduous or anxious. It feels seductive in a way. It’s an antidote for the way we revolve around each other choosing our safe, familiar, generic routes instead of veering off course where all the discovery actually happens.
The Fuller Cup is a neighborhood place; Starbucks is a place in the neighborhood. Both serve coffee, but only one serves something a little more satisfying.