On May 16, the Bean will be four years old. When I visited North Adams for the first time in July of 1996, I saw potential up every hill, down every street, and around every corner, but I didn’t run into very many persons who seemed to recognize it. One of those who apparently did was Audrey Witter. Several months earlier, she had opened up the Appalachian Bean Café on a quiet corner on Main Street in a once-bustling space occupied by The Boston Store.
“I was working in Human Services in Pittsfield at a women’s service center. On a part-time basis, I was working three days a week in North Adams at 85 Main Street. One day, we were sitting in Papa Gino’s, and one of the girls said to me, ‘Audrey, you should open a cafe.’ I just kind of laughed and jokingly said, ‘Oh, maybe, maybe.’”
“A couple of months later, I called my sister and said, ‘Do you want to look into this and see if it could work?’ She said yes, so we took a course in Pittsfield at Berkshire Enterprises to learn how to write a business plan. I made a lot of contacts and talked to my stepfather at Gateway Clothing. He was really excited that I wanted to do something here in North Adams.”
“When I worked here in North Adams, I found that there was a real strong sense of community. There are a lot of agencies that work for the good of the people. When I was talking to the people about the cafe, they were very welcoming, and I felt very comfortable with it. I really formed a love for North Adams.”
“I thought this place was too big, but the more I kept looking at it, the more I liked it. I learned in my class that the corner is a better spot. I knew the brick wall was there, and I knew those windows were there, because you could see them from the outside. I found out that the wall had been closed up for almost a 100 years. I decided that I wanted that wall and I wanted that ceiling.”
“It took me two months to renovate. I signed the lease on a Friday; I think it was March 15th. That night, I got out of work and we started. That weekend, we tore down that wall. The wall was charred because of the heat pipe, so I sandblasted it. I did a lot of things I’d never done before. I did a lot of the work myself and worked with the contractors. I taped up the windows, and people were really interested in what was going on in here. On the 16th of May, we opened the doors.”
“I want people to come here and enjoy themselves. I don’t want it to be a restaurant where you get ‘em in and get ‘em out. It’s big, so people can sit and don’t have to leave so other people can sit down. People love that front window. In fact, when I have a chance, I sit there. The nicest thing about working here is the people. I like to greet the people when they come in. I love to work the morning, because you have time to chat and laugh with the customers. A lot of people are regulars, so you get to know their names.”
“I’ve brought my friends to see my cafe, and they comment what a beautiful city it is. I ride my bike all over, and when you get up on the roads with the big hills, you can see everything. Who wouldn’t want to live here?”
On Wednesday, August 14, 1996, I disappeared into North Adams for the first time to begin writing Steeples. I remember the day vividly. I got up before dawn and made the two-hour drive from my home in Torrington, Connecticut, arriving in North Adams about 7:15. It was a gorgeous day. I brought my camera, a pen, and a pocket notepad. I got a poppy seed bagel and a cup of hazelnut coffee at the Bean. I walked around all day, jotted down some notes, and took a lot of photographs. In between, I had lunch at the Bean and stopped in several times for a few minutes just to rest and collect my thoughts. It was a comfortable place to hang out, and nobody bothered me.
My second trip to North Adams was on Thursday, September 19. Like the previous trip, I had no schedule. It was another beautiful day, especially since the fall colors were already bright on the mountains. I wanted to find out a little more about North Adams, and I hoped to talk to a few people. I was so excited about my visit that I had trouble sleeping. I was on the road by dawn again, and I found myself with another poppy seed bagel and hazelnut coffee at the Bean two hours later. I remember thinking, “This feels like it’s going to become a ritual.”
I noticed a few old-timers at a table in front, and they were engaged in a lively discussion. I enjoyed watching the young lady who appeared to run the restaurant. Despite a very hectic morning, she was smiling and laughing and obviously having a good time. She seemed to know all the customers by their first names. I asked around and found out that her name was Audrey. I had no idea at the time the important roles that Audrey and those old-timers would play in this wonderful adventure I have been having in North Adams for nearly four years. I have kept a diary. The following is part of what I wrote down after a visit in January 1999:
It is 7:30 in the morning. I am sitting on a stool at the Bean looking out through the front window facing the south side of Main Street. I am warmed by a fresh poppy seed bagel, a cup of hazelnut coffee, and the nostalgic crack of the heat pipes near me. The radio is playing a lovely old song by John Denver, and it makes me cry in appreciation for the brilliance of this moment.
To the right, I can see cars way up on High Street, as they slowly make their way down to West Main. Other cars hurry by and recklessly turn right on Holden, sometimes stopping for wary pedestrians crossing at the corner. Grace struggles with her walker as she comes out of the drugstore. Chuck opens Gateway Clothing and comes in to get coffee. “Welcome home, Joe,” he jokes.
Like clockwork, Tony Talarico pulls up in his red car, hops out, waves to me, and almost jogs down to the Holiday Inn to work out on the weight machines. Fifteen minutes later, he almost jogs back, gets something out of his car, and hurries across the street with a look on his face like he knows that every day of his 85 years has been a precious gift. I stand by the door and wait. He gives me sort of an Italian hug as he comes in. We grab the table by the front window, and I take a seat and finish my coffee. Tony gets a bottle of grape juice out of the cooler and joins me.
Tony comes here four mornings a week. He lost his wife Helen to a long agonizing illness a few years ago. A devoted Catholic, he cared for her faithfully right up to the end. He fills his days with community service and social activities that would tire most of us. He’s on the library board of directors, organizes periodic reunion luncheons for his high school classmates, writes a history column for NorthAdams.com, and even has his own website, which contains endearing stories about growing up in an Italian immigrant family and serving in World War II.
In an hour or so, he will join some of his friends at one of their favorite breakfast spots for oatmeal and eggs, which he does every Thursday. On Fridays, it’s a breakfast prayer meeting at the Williams College dining hall with a different group of friends. There’s another breakfast gang that meets on Saturdays. Once a week, he and a couple of old buddies drive up to the Blue Benn Diner in Vermont for lunch elbow to elbow at the counter.
“So what’s new?” I ask, and the stories start pouring out. Bob Field lopes in already spewing out a corny joke or singing “That’s Amore.” He loves to do his impressions of Dean Martin and Walter Brennan, which are right on the mark. Despite his 70 years, his face sports the mischief of a child. He spends his retired years in his flower garden or hanging out with the guys. Bob is a joy to be with.
Sometimes the truck drivers from Berkshire Gas drop by before they head out on their daily route. They are much younger, but no less nostalgic, and fit right in. About 8:15, Carl Robare, a retired phone worker who is pushing 75, arrives from Stamford, Vermont, which is just an eight-mile drive in his shiny pickup. Carl dabbles in sculpture, painting, and tinkers with all sorts of things. He is worldly, well-read, philosophical, and full of common sense and sharp humor. He fixed the Civil War statue up the street when a car hit it in 1978. Like most of us, Carl is sentimental and often gets teary-eyed talking about the beauty of the “soft mountains,” as he calls them.
Over at their own special table, Mike and Bill and Red and Ziggy laugh and chatter boisterously and pick on Audrey when she brings over some muffins. She just smiles. She is always smiling. Her little daughter Hannah, almost five months old, smiles that same smile. The Bean is often her daytime home, and she is quickly learning that the world is full of old men who drink coffee. Like her mother, she will grow up loving people and life in this quiet and gracious little city.
“And talk of poems and prayers and promises/And things that we believe in/How sweet it is to love someone/How right it is to care/ How long it’s been since yesterday/What about tomorrow/And what about our dreams/And all the memories we share.” -from “Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” by John Denver.