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Dispatch from the Book Trader Cafe Writer in Residence

A coffee lover reflects on the rebirth of New Haven’s roasted bean scene.

At the beginning of shutdown, in early March, I used to venture out for long walks, bundled in my purple coat. The city was quiet and cold, my fingers losing feeling within fifteen minutes. In such weather, I longed for a cup of coffee to smooth over the day’s rough edges—my coffee shops of choice are Willoughby’s and the Book Trader Cafe.  I like to joke that I was the Book Trader writer-in-residence: until this past March I had finished every final paper underneath their hazy glass ceiling. But after spring break, Book Trader closed its doors. The rickety brown tables were upturned and placed on the counter. Willoughby’s window soon sported a hopeful sign, saying they would open someday soon. Both Blue State cafes featured a sign saying they were closed indefinitely. Koffee? looked abandoned, frozen in the days when we might brave the cold for a cigarette smoke. When Duda spoke about his employees, I thought briefly of the nice barista who used to joke with me about milk alternatives at the Book Trader counter. These people, like the Yale employees who brighten our day, are as much part of our college experience as the individuals we learn alongside.  

Some of the first coffee shops to return this summer were Koffee? and Willoughby’s  Grove Street location, which both opened in July. Atticus, too, opened up its doors in late July, though the bookstore section is now separated by a pane of glass, and the seating area is blocked by shelves of sourdough and local craft beer. Blue State opened their York Street cafe on June 17th. Since students started arriving in New Haven, I’ve seen more people sitting inside, their masks off. There’s something strange about peering into the York Street Blue State. It’s a familiar sight, students with laptops open and black coffees in hand, but it looks off, foreign, a kind of looking-glass into the campus world we knew before. Absorbing the image of barefaced students indoors, it takes me a few moments to remember we’re in a pandemic, and then my mind reaches for anxiety: how can people be allowed to sit inside with their masks off? 

While Blue State on York may be stuck in a not-so-distant past, other coffee shops have altered their expectations. Koffee’s Goodall says that “one thing that has really become clear in this pandemic is: innovate or die.” For Goodall, this has meant working with nearby buildings to secure outdoor space that fits tables that are at least six feet apart. For Willoughby’s, it meant closing down their York Street branch until students returned in late August. “The store on York Street is highly dependent on Yale. It’s in the architecture library, which is closed. It’s in the midst of dormitories, which have been closed,” says Levine. Willoughby’s branch on Grove has a market including coffee-buyers across Connecticut, but its York Street location, like the Book Trader Cafe, still relies on Yalies for business. In the pandemic, Levine says, relying on this demographic “is just not a sustainable business model.” 

As we turn to the fall, many business owners find themselves at a loss. “It’s such a difficult time for anybody to know what to do,” says Willoughby’s Levine. Koffee?’s Goodall had considered investing in plexiglass to create little cubicles for Koffee? so that students could resume studying there the way they used to. But ultimately, it was much more expensive than Goodall anticipated. Unlike Booktrader and Willoughby’s, Koffee’s Goodall has been exploring indoor options. “I’m hoping to open the doors for customers within the next month or so, before the weather turns,” says Levine. “But again, we’re only going to have seating for about 18 people.” 

In college, students flesh out their niches with the coffee shops we frequent for hot beverages and studying. Memories form around seasonal drinks. Relationships flourish between us and the baristas who witnessed us enter their coffee shops as first-years and walk out, into the world, as 23 and 22-year-olds, a favorite cup of coffee in hand. It’s the fall of my senior year now, and the traditions I might’ve looked to––meeting friends to study in Book Trader, getting coffee and sitting outside of the Willoughby’s on York––seem like those of a faraway place. In their place, I’ve had to make new traditions of my own, which has meant identifying roast names through conversations from 6 feet away at Willoughby’s, and finding out why some coffee demands heavy cream and others no dairy at all. 

When I got back to New Haven after briefly visiting family at the beginning of August, I saw that a friend who was passing through New Haven to collect their things had left me a gift: a small bag of Willoughby’s coffee. Anticipating a strange ending to my time at Yale, they gave me some advice: “Drink lots of coffee – I finally bought you some from Willoughby’s.” My last first day of classes, I woke up early and made coffee in my kitchen. I pressed my nose into the still-fresh bag of coffee grounds, remembering briefly what it meant to be a first-year, so unsure of the world, standing outside the Willoughby’s on Grove street. It seems right to end this world where it began for me, with Willoughby’s coffee. I make a note for myself: to buy intentionally from Willoughby’s and Book Trader. I know that if I want these local businesses to have a life of their own outside my sentiment, I have to act accordingly. It feels the most appropriate way to say goodbye: with a thank you. 

—Ananya Kumar-Banerjee is a senior in Berkeley College.

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