There is a place, a bakery actually, I really like to go in Duluth, MN. It is in Canal Park and is called Amazing Grace Bakery. It bears no resemblance to a bakery and it is within a renovated waterfront 8 story building. First three floors are retail and offices, with studios and services on the next four, apartments on the top. The bakery is in the basement down eight stairs from the outside, with windows looking out at the ankles of passersby. A stairwell, with wood handrails polished from heavy use, leads most of the way down to a wooden heavy single glass panel door, smudged from in and out wrong-side pushes. The entrance is compressed with merchandise opportunities, weekly free papers, small bulletin board and a vending machine that does not fit the custom alcove built for vending machines because it shares the space with afterthought plumbing improvements. It was once the doorway that led to the coal room that is now this bakery/coffee house/open mike stage/study hall for the local colleges/favorite place for artists to get a cup of coffee and not look different, but still feel different (or for some to look very different).
It is not the coffee that attracts people, although without it no one would come. It is not the bakery, either. As bakeries go, it produces oversized cookies and muffins, and fresh bread that is used mostly for oversized sandwiches as off center as the exotic coffees. The bread is sliced diagonally and too thick, making an assembled construction that must be disassembled to eat.
It isn’t the decor or the room appointments. Nothing matches, save the three styles of chairs, and they don’t match each other.
The tables are rectangles and circles. Rectangles are painted black on top as checkerboards. Round ones are dressed with cloths as if they are the ladies of the room. Each table, both square and round, has a small vase with a fresh cut wild flowers, embellished with a fern bow or babies breath twig. Each vase is a different unique item. The only common thing about them is they are all small, inexpensive and unusual. They all have this one thing, each one is different, no two alike. Some are jelly jar simple. Others are chipped china porcelain. Some look silver, some brass, others are handmade pottery. Together they tell a story of someone who watches, someone who shares. Sitting at any table on any day, the vase tells a story of being found, or saved, collected or gathered. Perhaps some given because it is known that this place collects such things. They match the customers, none of them match either.
Entering any place for the first time strikes at memories and comparisons. We all do that, check out for telltale signs of comfort, safety, personal fit. Scan the layout, read the menu, ask vapid questions about strange looking things behind the counter. Usually within a few seconds we can tell if this place is for us.
So the waitress asks, “Can I help you?” – “I’ll have the house coffee,” I reply. “For here or to go?” and the question raises a blush of doubt. A regular would know if they wanted to stay, if it was safe to stay. Besides, where do you take it to go, without knowing the neighborhood? Others may ask for the café latte’, or Mocha, maybe the espresso two bean double. A large cup of house coffee is a license to be able to take a table and look as normal or as strange as others in the room, to have a license to sit way too long at one of the tables and do one’s own thing.
Sometimes only a moment is embarrassing. “Let me know when you decide.” She turns to the next customer who spurts out a string of coffee descriptions and names that ends in a double latte’. It could be one cup or several, it is hard to tell for the unfamiliar, the uninitiated, regular coffee person. The coffee machine makes grinding sounds against indecision. She turns back, “So, you decided?” “For here,” I reply. “Small or large?” “Large.”
Graphite and watercolor pencil on drawing paper 6″x7″
Coffee is served in a large round-handled cup too full, too slippery for one-handed gripping. She hands change right over a tipping basket, with a sign saying, “Big tippers make better lovers,” shaking the basket which becomes a familiar sound during a half quart coffee experience.
Then I realize, like the wild flowers and everything else in the room I, too, have been collected to sit among the eclectic and become part of someone else’s new experience. I have sat and drawn and painted in Amazing Grace Bakery for years now, while taking my breaks from the plein air work in Canal Park, the streets, lake front and hills of Duluth, Minnesota.