In previous posts, I wrote about the importance of good coffee shops as essential cornerstones in small towns and communities, not to mention a mainstay of my own personal happiness. My blog post on Day 36 listed the following characteristics of an outstanding coffee shop: several different seating areas, electrical outlets near those seating areas, strong wifi, a welcoming atmosphere for non-locals (no turned-up noses and raised eyebrows when the door squeaks open), and fabulous decaf coffee (good decaf is especially hard to find). Back in Maryland, my favorite coffee shop was actually in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, where I wrote 90% of my grad school papers and 50% of my book, Change is On the Wind. I could camp there for hours upon hours in my happy place, buying more than enough coffee and food to justify my claim to the real estate. And it met all of the characteristics mentioned above.
Since being on this sailbatical, we have explored more than 20 towns or cities, not including the communities we anchored near but didn’t go ashore. In each location, I set out on my quest to find the town’s best coffee shop. Donna’s Canal Creamery in New Smyrna Beach (NSB) topped them all, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. And Donna’s has become the new standard by which I measure all future coffee shops.
However, it wasn’t until leaving NSB that I truly reflected on why Donna’s is the new standard. While the shop itself meets all the physical necessities of quality food, beverages, furnishings, good wifi, and accessible power, the real distinguishing characteristic is the people and their ability to foster community in a gentle natural way.
It begins with Donna and Karie, and the rest of the staff, who warmly greet you as soon as the door opens, even if ten people are in line. There’s no question that you were seen and will be served. How many times have we all waited in line, convinced that we were invisible to the person behind the counter? Call it southern hospitality, or just human kindness, but a warm greeting does wonders to make us feel welcomed.
But Donna’s doesn’t stop there. The staff shows a genuine interest in their patrons. They not only want to know your name and your story, they also introduce you to other regulars. “Hey Bob, this is Cheryl. She and her husband sold their house in Maryland and now live on their boat. Isn’t that cool? Come say hello.” By warmly greeting guests, getting to know them, and making connections, Donna’s has become the cornerstone of the Canal Street community in NSB. People are drawn like a magnet to the shop, and linger to savor the warm welcome and feel a part of the community.
Even during a storm that threatened a mesocyclone, Donna offered a safe shelter by corralling customers into her office or the ladies’ room. Instead of sitting silently in fear, she jovially served up shots of brandy with vows of “if we’re going down, we’ll do it in style.” The gentleman that joined us in the ladies’ room was a first-timer at Donna’s, yet got an instant sense of the spirit of the people and the place.
With more than 50 visits to Donna’s, I have many more stories to tell. But there’s one, quite early on in our stay, that especially made me feel as though I was becoming part of the community. There I was, sitting at my normal table, when a patron approached. He introduced himself as Blaine, and said, “I visit this shop almost everyday, and I always see you sitting at the same table, pecking away at your keyboard. What’s your story?”
I laughed, told him about our sailbatical, and that began a friendship. In subsequent days, I met his wife Susan and niece Emma. Blaine would often stop my table for a few minutes and we’d chat. Another regular, Bob, would stop by to chat too, and even offered to bring me lunch from the town’s drugstore counter (cutest five and dime place with great food).
Barista Karie and I often chatted during the occasional lull, and she introduced me to her boyfriend John, and other regulars too. I even pitched in to help Karie a few times when the shop got super busy, though I still can’t figure out how to make all of those fancy coffees. Donna made sure I met her kids, and aunt and uncle, and so many others. She even prepared a going away box of goodies for us on our last day in NSB.
Since leaving NSB, I’ve visited three more towns with coffee shops, but none came close to my experiences on Canal Street. Each new town has made me reflect on Donna’s, and what creates a community. The real testament to the bonding of new friendships can be illustrated with our last weekend in NSB. We invited Blaine and Susan, and Karie and John, to join us at Bakka’s Bistro and Bookstore for dinner, as mentioned in blog post “Really Smitten… Days 83-120.” I didn’t have a photo to share then, but I do now. When I see this photo, I see friends having a good time, and being grateful that Donna’s Canal Creamery brought us together.
Since then, I have received numerous texts from the friends we left in NSB, and each has been heartwarming.
Being missed is a sign that we were—we are— truly part of a community. We have assured our new friends that we will be back. New Smyrna Beach will be a welcomed stop on our journey back north. And once docked, I’ll be making a beeline for Donna’s. Because the fabric of community is being woven at Donna’s, in brightly colored threads, one person and one day at a time.