Quick and Easy Killed the Coffee Shop

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; B01

The ice machine walked out the door. Destination: a restaurant in Bermuda. The chairs and tables and the still-beating heart of the place, the roaster, were headed to Annapolis, to some new, independent coffee joint that promises to carry on the battle against the behemoth from Seattle. The last bags of coffee from the final roasting were lined up on a counter, parting gifts for loyal customers.

When there was just about nothing else left in the store, Sedakial Gebremedhin took down his last two paintings and got ready to say farewell to the place that was his America.

He came to this country when he was 17, from Ethiopia, went to High Point High School in Beltsville and found work in 2001 as a beginning barista at Sirius Coffee, a small spot of community just above the Van Ness Metro station in Northwest Washington.

Five years later, Gebremedhin was general manager of the business, handling everything from purchasing and hiring to setting the tone that lured people into spending massive chunks of their days at a coffee shop. He met musicians and international bankers, commuters and slackers, professors and artists. People took a liking to Gebremedhin's paintings, which dotted the walls, and to the bands that sometimes played in the shop come evening, and to the daily sight of each other.

Now it's over. Sirius was the last of three businesses that Andrew Frank owned in Washington, three attempts to hold the line against the hegemony of the huge national chains -- three successes, yet ultimately three failures.

Frank has moved to Toronto, where he is working as a retail consultant for -- egads -- a national chain in the movie business. Gebremedhin is pondering his next move.

Sirius was an anomaly in an oddly sterile and bland bit of the District; it was a gathering place in a neighborhood where folks tend to stick to themselves. Professors from the University of the District of Columbia, secretaries from Fannie Mae, students from Howard's law school, Metro workers, old folks from the apartments across the way, young singles stopping by after the gym -- for 12 years, they all found Sirius welcoming.

In the early years, when specialty coffee shops were a novelty, Frank stayed open till 1 a.m. He had a liquor license, and he played host to pretty decent bands, until the downtown coffee scene developed and the bands left in search of bigger tips and a more hoppin' vibe.

So Frank shifted to a daytime emphasis, with sandwiches, breakfast, smoothies. "The market tells you what it wants," he says. The offerings hardly mattered to Frank; what made it all worthwhile was the loyalty of the customers and employees alike.

Frank went on to open Visions, an art movie house in Dupont Circle that specialized in anything the big chains didn't offer: political documentaries, midnight cult flicks, ethnic film festivals. And he ran the coffeehouse in the basement of Politics and Prose, the Connecticut Avenue bookstore that is a community unto itself.

In each case, he thought of the business as a vehicle through which people could express their exasperation with the sameness and anonymity of national chains. Sure, he thought the coffee he roasted at Sirius was superior to the product at Starbucks. More important, he thought the people who came back day after day felt connected to the workers who knew their customers by name, drink and the hours of their comings and goings.

Customers indeed savored that connection. At least six marriages got their start in the shop; Frank attended two of the weddings. Even as Sirius was being emptied out last week, a steady stream of people came by to say goodbye and ask where Frank and Gebremedhin were going.

In the end, convenience won out. Fannie Mae, the new owner of the building, put in a 6,000-square-foot cafeteria next door, a place that sells "everything," Frank says. "Sushi, sandwiches, coffee -- there's nothing they don't have. We like to say that what we really want is personal relationships and community, but in the end, people chose convenience.

"It's difficult now to sustain an independent business anywhere because any landlord in a decent location knows they can get more rent from a national chain, and they know that chain will be less of a credit risk."

Visions closed in 2004 because the chains saw its success and moved in with their own theaters, offering bigger and better screens and more popular movies. Sirius's space is likely to be taken by a chain coffee store.

More than 150 people came to the Sirius farewell party. They said they'd see each other again.

Frank likes to think they really will. "As more independent businesses die out, there'll be a backlash," he predicts -- or is it merely a hope? "People will miss the personal attention they got. They'll see the failure of the convenience-driven culture."

Maybe. As I left Sirius, I had only 15 minutes before my next interview. I ducked into the cafeteria next door and grabbed a doughnut. I was in the car in under a minute.


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