On a dreadfully cold New England day, I sit at a table that looks out on Main Street, browse the Boston Globe, and scarf down a scrumptious breakfast of French toast and maple syrup. Journalists need a good place to hang out, and the Morning Star Café in downtown Springfield, Vermont is the perfect spot.
Then I plop my tape recorder down on a nearby table and ask a talkative group of locals if I can interview them. One man immediately stands up and excuses himself. “I’m under the witness protection program, and I can’t be part of this,” he cracks, and leaves amid a roar of good-natured laughter.
Once we get going, I can barely keep up with the two lawyers, one sitting with his office manager/wife, the town manager, and the owner of a heating oil company. Everyone has strong opinions, but one thing they agree on: “This café is the center of town.”
About ten years ago, building contractor and developer Stephen Greene bought the historic (1901) Bank Block where the café later located. Just after he closed on the property, he was scouting around and discovered some men chatting over coffee in the basement. “Hey, what’s going on?” Greene asked, to which one man replied, “We’ve been meeting down here every morning since the bank closed. We’ve got our own key.”
The Breakfast Club, as some call it, still meets there regularly. I dropped in on them after my café interview, and the club was down to two guys and a coffee pot. “The rest escaped to Florida till spring,” one of them complained. “They send us postcards that say, ‘C’mon down, it’s 85 degrees.’”
When entrepreneur Matt Alldredge moved into town 16 years ago from the Midwest to work in communications, there were few vacancies downtown. “Welcome Wagon gave me coupons from 180 businesses. Now there’s no Welcome Wagon, and 100 of those businesses are gone.”
It’s no wonder that the Breakfast Club wound up in the basement of a nearly empty building — there weren’t any places left to meet. Ever since the machine tool industry took the last bus out of town, and most of the 3,000 jobs with it, it’s common to hear comments such as: “Springfield is just a retirement village. Everybody who stayed is getting old.”
Alldredge, the founder of Precision Valley Communications, a thriving broadband engineering company, has become a serious player (along with Greene) in Springfield’s slow, but deliberate redevelopment. Last year he rolled a sparkling 1950s Mahoney diner (Springfield Royal Diner) onto the lot adjacent to his Corvette Museum in North Springfield; and he has sunk a lot of cash into some vacant downtown buildings, filling one storefront with a Radio Shack.
“He’s just throwing his money away,” says one of the basement coffee drinkers. “Unless they bring back the mills, this place will stay dead.” But while the old-timers have their solitary coffee, upstairs at the café, the regulars will tell you that Springfield is on the move.
No place symbolizes that sense of hope better than the Morning Star, and that was exactly what co-owner Neomi Lauritsen had in mind when she opened it in 1996. “I wanted it to be a community-oriented place, where people would feel welcome and be able to hold meetings. It started as a 20-seat muffin and coffee shop. But it kept getting busier and busier, and so I finally added lunch. Then Mac came, and we expanded to dinners four nights a week.”
Mac is Robert McIntyre, a chef who met Lauritsen when they both worked at Penelope’s, a full-service restaurant downtown that still has a loyal following. In 1999, they turned a longtime friendship into a successful business partnership. But it hasn’t been an easy ride.
“We’re not rolling in the dough,” says Lauritsen, “but we’ve got customers who love us and employees who really value their jobs here. I had an employee who hugged me goodbye today and said, ‘I can’t wait to see you this afternoon so we can have some quiet time.’ I’m talking about quality-of-life issues.”
Many folks will tell you that the café owners are admired for hiring and nurturing young people who have been down on their luck. “They just want to be treated with respect,” offers McIntyre. “We have some young people who are very special to us. We have gone out of our way to be flexible, because we know their family histories. We are probably the only consistent thing in their lives.” When the town considered a curfew in an effort to cut down on loitering and vandalism, Lauritsen and McIntyre were among the first to speak out in defense of the teen population. The idea was subsequently dropped.
For this frequent visitor, the Morning Star has become a tempting destination point at the end of a 75-minute drive up from Florence, Massachusetts. The soups alone are worth the trip. Served in generous portions in decorative mugs, every variety is a great opening act for the vast selection of sandwiches, some fancy, others familiar. Even the tuna sandwich (Tuna Laguna) is a cut above the ordinary. And there’s plenty of room to settle in, read the paper, and observe the surprisingly diverse clientele.
McIntyre likes it that way. “That’s the atmosphere here. We’re not gonna tell someone to give up a table. It’s almost like going to the library. We get the doctors and lawyers, but the motorcycle guys with the tattoos come here in the summer. They just love this place.”
Neomi adds, “People at the senior housing come over for tea and cookies in the afternoon, or when family come to visit them. Folks come on Saturdays and play cribbage. And there’s a social services organization interviewing a single mother here right now. Maybe you can do that in some other restaurants, but you can’t spend two hours over a cup of coffee like you can here.”
The café is also the center of a growing music scene in the area. With the help of the Southeast Council on the Arts, they bring in acoustic music performers on weekends in the spring and fall, and there is also an open mic twice a month. The shows are so popular, that dinner reservations are advised on Fridays and Saturdays.
Over the years, Greene has managed to fill most of his grand old building. In fact, there is a direct entrance into the café from the adjacent section that houses offices and more than 80 workers. They’re in and out all day, carrying coffee and sandwiches back to their desks. There is also a connecting door to the Gallery at the Vault, a community-based spot for local artists to display their work, some of which hangs inside an actual bank vault. Greene donated the space. The art is eclectic and quite remarkable.
One of the regulars at the Morning Star is town manager Bob Forguites. He is full of optimism.
“Over the last few years, we’ve gotten millions of dollars in infrastructure funds. We’re building a $20 million waste water treatment plant, and a $5 million non-profit recreation center in a vacant mill.”
A real estate agent told me that the town is becoming a bedroom community for the increasingly gentrified upper valley area of Hanover and West Lebanon, New Hampshire. “These are more professional types, and they are demanding better services and shopping on Main Street.”
Downtown certainly could use more retail and foot traffic. One single woman who moved to Springfield recently commented, “I love it here. It’s quiet, and I’ve got just about everything I need, except there’s no place to buy underwear.” Her companion, a former New Yorker, notes with resignation, “There’s not much night life, but hey, it’s Vermont.”
Newcomers like Jessica Larivee want to help change that. She and Chris Mason own Private New England Bird Breeder in the former Springfield Bakery building on Main Street, and they live upstairs. She showed me the eerily beautiful former dance hall on the top floor, and the renovated storefront that will soon be the site of a computer store. In July, the funky old Springfield Lunch section of the building will become Flying Saucer, a California-style coffee house and gathering spot. Perhaps, like the Morning Star, it will represent another beacon of hope for this historic river town that deserves a revival.
Update: The Morning Star Cafe was sold in 2006, and shortly after, former co-owner Robert McIntyre passed away after a short illness. Springfield lost one of its most loved personalities, and one of its most caring community activists. The space is now occupied by a restaurant called 56 Main Street.
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A version of this article (also by Joe Manning) originally appeared on RoadsideOnline.com, and in the Springfield Reporter (Vermont). Used by permission.