With a heavy Hartford

Yesterday I got a call from my lovely friend Shannon McGinn, who relayed the sad news to me that she and her business partner James have sold Hartford Community Cafe in St. Louis, my beloved old haunting ground. Thus the bad titular pun of this entry. For lack of a more eloquent expression of sentiment, let me just say I am completely bummed. If you don't know Hartford, then it's hard to explain just how important it was to me, this little community they created over the past few years. Maybe where you live you have just such a place -- a corner coffee shop, owned by people you know and like a great deal, with a rotating cast of lovable loons both in front of and behind the counters. With Hartford, Shannon and James accomplished what many business owners only dream of -- creating a place where customers truly felt like they were a part of something, a place where they were really and truly welcome.

Hartford was unabashedly imperfect, eschewing the mainstreaming dictates of more corporate venues for a laid-back sensibility that attracted regulars looking to feel at home even when they weren't. Lots of businesses can attract customers but Hartford attracted people and, at the risk of sounding totally cheesy, many of those people became friends -- of the owners and of each other.

Even since I moved away from St. Louis -- no, especially since I left -- Hartford provided me with a central hang-out upon my return, a comfortable and familiar place where I knew the faces. Shannon and James opened their place to the the community (I know, I keep overusing that word, but there simply isn't a just substitute -- check your thesaurus), kindly providing us a home for Free Candy when the late, great Commonspace closed its doors. They stayed open late on Sunday nights just to accommodate our show and couldn't have been more supportive and encouraging of our kooky efforts.

I have to say I'm feeling a little homeless right now. I understand that life takes unexpected turns and that Shannon and James have made a very, very difficult decision, and that it is the right decision for them. I hope they never equate selling their business with failure, since the community they created on that little corner of Hartford and Roger in South City helped breathe life into the neighborhood was -- is -- an unequivocal success.

I truly hope that, whoever the new owners are, they understand that the intense loyalty of Hartford's customers wasn't because of the cappucinos or falafel sandwiches -- it was because of the spirit of the people who owned the place, the energy they put out there and the family of customers they attracted. We could all go down to Bread Co. or Starbucks if we wanted fast, perfect service in a sterile environment. It was because Shannon was there and made us feel not only welcome but as though we were the most important people on earth.

I wish Shannon and James all the luck in the world wherever their next adventures take them and I'm especially grateful that I get to count Shannon among my close friends now, and that's all because of Hartford and the way she opened the door to me. I'm going to miss swinging by and setting up my laptop, knowing it's only a matter of time before a familiar face drops by. I'll miss long stretches of chatter with Thomas Crone and Fred Hessel. I'll miss the exceptionally accommodating skills of Customer Service Kal. I'll miss seeing Michaela, Val and Jermaine, all up to various levels of no good.

Thank you, Hartford, for the countless afternoons and evenings, the hours of wireless internet access, the crazy episodes of Free Candy, miles of yarn knitted, endless cups of coffee and hot tea, mounds of falafal sandwiches and the cast of insane, unpredictable characters you attracted that just made it all feel so much like life.