When my family and I moved to Mayberry a little over seven years ago, there were three things I required of the community in order to make it my home: an indoor swimming pool, a good Mexican restaurant, and a coffee shop. I was just kidding, of course, except that I wasn't. Coming to this place I took comfort in the fact that two out of three wasn't bad and that I could get by without a place to enjoy my beloved java. Mercifully, the coffee house gods took pity on me; and within a few months of our arrival a local entrepreneur (and fine Presbyterian, I might add) chose to dedicate a chunk of the first floor of his Main Oak Emporium retail store in the heart of downtown Mount Airy to a brand new coffee shop. And that is how the Good Life Cafe was born.
The thing is, the Good Life has been so much more than just a place to drink coffee, as it is with most good coffee houses. It's where my young family would lunch on Fridays, my day off, munching on scrumptious chili and toasted jalapeno pimento cheese (still the best I've ever had). It gained fame as a live music hotspot; a comfortable home to many an Acoustic Blend and Mediocre Bad Guys show, as well as the place where Abbey Road was brought back to life this past fall. Every second and fourth Wednesday mornings the window loft area of the Good Life - what we affectionately labeled the "Upper Room" - was home to our church's Bob Chilton Bible study, providing a place for us to meet outside the church walls in the heart of our community. A few years into its existence the coffee shop introduced this wonderful thing called wireless internet - now as common and prevalent as cell phones but back then a cutting-edge luxury that created quite a buzz in Mayberry-land. Oh, and it also had some pretty darn good coffee too. It has been a large part of many of our lives; a staple for our little town.
It's not a total shock, really. This wasn't the first time that the "GL" had been on shaky ground. The economy's tough these days, especially for small towns like ours. And coffee houses are in perhaps one of the more difficult businesses when it comes to making a profit, having to support hefty costs of space and staff by selling a product for just a buck or two at a time. But each time the Good Life started to take a fall, like a cat it always managed to land on its feet and continue serving the jo.
But not this time - it's closing for good. And this is a very sad thing, for a lot of folks. Because in truth it never really was about the coffee, as good as that coffee was. That may sound strange, but it's true; a well-kept secret with all successful coffee shops. It's really about the people - the people who work there and the people who happily give it business, and how those groups of people are brought together. Like Cheers on the iconic sitcom of the 80's and 90's, the Good Life was a place where everybody knew your name. And even if you didn't know their name, or even recognize them, they still felt like family.
And that's a rarity in our world these days, don't you think? I mean, we all know the landscape is changing, or has already changed. I know I can get a much better deal on a book by logging on to Amazon.com and securing the item of my choice with a few clicks of the mouse and a credit card. I can surf the web and get pretty much anything and everything I'd otherwise find in a mom-and-pop store on Main Street without having to leave the comforts of my living room recliner.
But there's one very important thing that I will never be able to get in this manner - a sense of community. A sense of associating myself with a group of individuals who share the same town, same space and air that I do. A sense of feeling that I am part of supporting a local business, one that is owned by a fellow church member or a neighbor down the street. It never fails - I go into the coffee shop and run into my son's first-grade teacher, and the guy who lap swam two lanes next to me that morning, and the Young Life leader doing his daily study, and the church member whose daughter's wedding I officiated last month. That's what community is all about - it is rare and it is precious.
The Good Life's demise isn't the only business in early 2010 that's calling it quits - a day or two after this announcement one of our hometown newspapers shut its doors; two days later the owner of a one-of-a-kind train store decided to retire after having tried in vain to sell. From what I hear there are more similar closings on the way. And while my head knows that the Good Life really didn't set all those other things in motion like some sort of chain reaction, my heart can't help but feel it happened like that.
I got one last cup of coffee from the Good Life yesterday, it's final day of operation. I'd just swum a few laps at the pool and needed something to warm me up from the sub-freezing temperatures we've been having around here as of late. I needed a last "fix," in more ways than one. I walked in to the familiar sound of the bell that rings when the door is opened, making my way past the retail clothing (which will now take over the Good Life space) to the main counter. I placed my standard order: house blend, a little room for cream. The lady on the other side of the counter (who I confess to not knowing as well as I've known many of the others who've stood in her shoes) filled my Good Life travel mug and handed it to me as I passed her a few dollar bills. Keep the change, I said. It was such a simple sequence of actions - pour some coffee, hand it to me, take my money, ring it up. And yet there was a beauty and a grace about it each and every time; one I and many others will sorely miss as we stumble through the Good Life-less days that lie ahead of us.
So what's the moral here? The obvious one: support your local businesses and restaurants whenever you can, even when you know you could get a better deal somewhere else. There are people whose livelihoods depend on our choices. And not only that, they are people we know. We serve on community boards with them, we sit in church pews next to them, we coach little league soccer with them. They need and deserve our support.
But perhaps the main lesson in all of this is simply being thankful for those places where community forms and where we are brought together. For that is precious time, the sacred ground of human life. For over seven years a whole bunch of us have had the pleasure of encountering this at the Good Life Cafe on Main Street in Mount Airy. It sucks it won't be there for us anymore, but all those wonderful memories will continue to live on and remind us how something as basic and simple and wonderful as coffee can help create community. In our segmented, technology-saturated and individualistic world today, that truly is a gift we can take with us long after the "OPEN" sign is turned off for the last time.