As March draws to a close, so does my march through Lewistown. Yes, this all happened over the course of about two hours, but I thought that putting it all into one gigantic post would lead to a case of TL;DR among my readers. Admit it, I can get verbose. So here we go, walking down the mean streets of Lewistown in pursuit of a second dose of caffeine. Actually, these streets are anything but mean. As I implied in the last post, this city is very much a country town writ large.
The Square Cafe and Bakery serves as a great example of this larger theme of city body/county heart. As self-consciously bohemian as East End was, with its copious art displays and advertisement of their upcoming music offerings, Square Cafe exemplified the opposite pole. When I walked in, it felt as much like a family diner as a ‘traditional’ coffeehouse, in fact, moreso. I should have expected that, given the source of this coffee tip. It was Katie, the barista at Walnut Cheese Nook. Judging strictly by presentation, the people here share a spiritual note with the folk of Walnut.
Indeed, as I took in my surroundings, the “Bakery” part of the name was far more evident than the “Cafe” portion. An entire table of fresh baked goods was arrayed in front of me (in this part of PA, you better believe it’s fresh), along with a kind of salad bar/buffet. The girl at the counter seemed almost surprised that I’d even asked for coffee given the sizable lineup of people here for an afternoon snack! Oh yes, it’s clearly popular. In fact, it seems most popular with the working class folk who populate the fairly cosmopolitan downtown. Speaking of cosmopolitan, this place is right around the block from the historic Embassy Theater. It’s actually an old Vaudeville theater that got its start in 1927.
The coffee at Square was…a case of deja vu! They use the very same coffee that I’d started out tasting on this Lewistown mission: Rich Coast Coffee. It’s clearly more popular than I’d suspected even from the vast array of choices and local homages in evidence at Rich Coast HQ. As for the appraisal…reread my entry on Rich Coast. It’s good stuff, in other words. Though I must say it tasted both more watered-down and yet somehow fresher than my own brewing. That’s not surprising given that the very kind and harried girl who welcomed me had to run to a coffee machine in the dining room and brew it from scratch while I waited! Either people who come here drink a lot of coffee or not much, and I’m really not sure which it is. They probably should, since Rich Coast is a legitimate local roaster and the view of town afforded from the large windows of this shop is phenomenal.
So yeah, to sum up, this coffeehouse seemed more representative of the rural, proletariat side of Mifflin County than the urban, bourgeois side. Make no mistake, Lewistown has both. Consider this: As a coda to the trip I stopped at a small new-age shop run by a mother and her daughter. I asked both of them about the state of the metaphysical community in Lewistown and the owner responded “We’re building it.” I wasn’t surprised. Even along the great thoroughfare of Rt. 322 which carries tens of thousands of college students north, the traditionalism that permeates these mountains remains strong no matter how many buildings are added.
In terms of the Coffeehouse Journey, it begs a question. Can a coffeehouse be essentially proletariat, or is it a product of middle-class sensibilities by its very nature? Since taverns cross the line regularly it seems strange that coffeehouses so rarely do. Coffeehouses are steeped in Enlightenment-era values born of intellectual freedom and the free time needed to express it, but those same philosophies are egalitarian to the core. This in turn means that coffeehouse culture itself can and should evolve as long as those values are kept at the center. Coffeehouses might look quite different in the future. They’ll still be coffeehouses, and I’m willing to bet the discerning eye will see common threads.
On the next leg of this segment of the Journey, we’ll be heading deeper into the Alleghenies. No, I’m not going all the way to Altoona. We can assume they have a coffee culture of sorts because they’re a larger city. I aim to find out if any more small towns nestled in the mountain folds have a coffeehouse culture all their own. Until next time, stay caffeinated.