Caffeinating a Community

Customer Mary Gillmarten chats with Melane Riddle, center, and owner Janet Kimmel at Janet's Java, an independent coffee shop on Telegraph Road.
Customer Mary Gillmarten chats with Melane Riddle, center, and owner Janet Kimmel at Janet's Java, an independent coffee shop on Telegraph Road. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

It's a far cry -- and a bit of a schlep -- from Del Ray or Old Town, but on a wide, high-speed stretch of Telegraph Road just south of the Capital Beltway, a community has come to life.

There are no sidewalks, no pedestrians, no pretty patio planters sprouting ivy or spring blooms. There is only an aging commercial plaza, close to the highway, with a dry cleaner, a florist, a flooring store and a bank.

Nestled in the middle is Janet's Java, an oasis of neighborly cheer where commuters pop in on the way to work, where moms bring tots later in the morning and where teleworkers sit with their laptops, sometimes doing business but more often chatting with other patrons -- or with Janet Kimmel.

Kimmel opened Janet's Java four years ago hoping to grow a neighborhood hub, a coffee shop where people could hang out and know one another's names. For a former sales executive in the telecommunications industry who had survived four rounds of layoffs until her employer finally folded, it was a tantalizing dream. But it was also a giant leap -- and a huge risk.

Kimmel couldn't afford the rents of central Alexandria, where several independent coffee shops are already established. So she found a dark, dingy storefront at the Telegraph Center and then transformed the former mail-order genealogy bookstore with the modern accoutrements of a warm and funky gathering place: track lighting, local artwork, eclectic furniture made from exotic woods and a community bookshelf.

Kimmel is hardly the first to create an independent coffee shop in the face of the daunting Starbucks juggernaut. According to Starbucks's Web site, 235 of its stores do business within a 20-mile radius of Washington. Some indies have survived and prospered -- Misha's in Old Town Alexandria and Saint Elmo's in Del Ray. Some have not.

Gillette's, a beloved coffeehouse in Great Falls for 10 years, closed its doors in 2000 after losing its lease. Residents, who pointed to the feeling of community that Gillette's created, have opposed opening a Starbucks nearby. Near Fort Belvoir, Roast and Brew opened in a shopping plaza on Telegraph Road in April 2001 -- only to contend with the closing of Belvoir's gates and other security measures after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2002 sniper shootings.

"You can survive," said Lin Crowley, a painter and former owner of Roast and Brew, which closed in June 2003. "You just have to plan ahead. We didn't go in with other investors; it was just our own money. And if you don't have the money to hold out, you just don't have the money to hold out."

What makes Janet's Java an unlikely success is its location. Janet's has inspired drivers and residents of nearby Jefferson Manor to create a community where one might least expect it: on the side of the highway. The shop is often crowded with patrons in the mornings. Music plays; customers chat; the coffee machine hisses and spits. And now, though Kimmel would have chosen a rowhouse in Old Town if she could have paid the rent, she's proud of where she is.

Kimmel launched Janet's Java with the help of a loan from the Small Business Administration. She expected the renovation work to last three months; it took 10. Kimmel, her sister and a friend installed hardwood floors, a drop ceiling, tile in the rear corridors. They drywalled and painted and hunted for cheap furniture at garage sales.

"I got this off the curb," Kimmel said, pointing to an old chest of drawers positioned between two leather easy chairs at the front of the shop.

One of her biggest expenses was the coffee machine -- the real thing, not the automatic kind -- which cost $9,000. And one of her biggest challenges was to learn how to make good coffee. It is strong, organic and produced through fair trade, she said.


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