Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 2009: Newport Coffee

For the first two years of this letter, the March letter was about my travels in Latin America. The March 2004 was entitled Letter from Buenos Aires and was just that. In March of 2005, I wrote about Mexico. I thought that I would be dedicating each March letter to reflecting on someplace that I travelled. It should have been easy to, or so I thought, as I was pretty much a road warrior working in the Latin American Division of Colgate-Palmolive.

But, it did not turn out that way. Other topics seemed more important each of the next three years and so, I wrote about them. Each March, however, I would think about someplace to write about. The problem was quite simple; I was not travelling as much and certainly not abroad.

This March is no different. I wanted to write about someplace I have been and enjoyed. I wanted to share the thoughts I had there and the people that I met. While having this intention is one thing, I am really not travelling anywhere these days. The last time I was on a plane was the first week of November 2008 when I went to Knoxville to speak at the University of Tennessee Supply Chain Forum. In January of this year, I drove to Detroit for a weekend. The stark truth is that I am really no longer any kind of road warrior. This is the longest I have gone since the early 1980s without being on an airplane. I am actually trying to decide if this is good or bad. I am definitely leaning toward the “it’s good” side.

Stark as it might be, there are certain benefits to not being a road warrior. I am not dealing with airports, airport lines, airport security, flight delays, flight cancellations, and cramped crowded airplanes. I am not dealing with opening the door to yet another hotel room and feeling that “if this is Tuesday, I must be in Miami.” People tell me I look more rested and calm. That is no doubt a combination of avoiding the stress of the daily work grind and the stress of business travel. Yet, amid all these pluses, I will admit I do miss the movement, the change of venue, and seeing good friends and colleagues in distant locations especially Latin America.

Somehow, in this circumstance I have decided to renew the idea of an annual travel letter. The obvious question is what destination to write about? The idea I always had was to write the letter from that destination. I could write about Armenia, Uruguay, Chile, or Guatemala. I could write about Boston, Washington DC, or even Miami. But I chose someplace much closer to home… a mere 2.1 miles from my home. I want to write about the Newport Coffee House in Bannockburn, IL. I have written this entire letter from there.

Newport Coffee is a wonderful little place. It is a single store, sole proprietor business, with free WiFi and really good coffee. No really, the best coffee around. I have nothing against the chain stores I also frequent: Starbucks and Paneras. The prices and offerings, coffee-wise, at these stores are essentially the same. It is just a refreshing throwback to go this little one store operation.

I go there most afternoons for the past few weeks. They have free WiFi an absolute must for one seeking new employment or writing a monthly letter. There are three differences between Newport Coffee and the aforementioned chain stores. First, the music at Newport is at the perfect volume for me. The selection of music is very good, loud enough to enjoy, but not so loud that you cannot think, read, or concentrate. The music at Starbucks is offensively loud to me. This is probably because amongst everything else they offer, they sell music. Secondly, the clientele at Newport is different, more eclectic. This is because they attract a student customer base. Newport Coffee is the unofficial coffeehouse of the nearby Trinity International University. Even the non-student customers seem to come to read or work more eclectically.

The Trinity connection is interesting. I think most of the employees are either students or alumni of this university. Certainly, everyone that works there looks like a grad student clad in a very urban casual style of jeans and t-shirts.

Newport Coffee has a kind of Ann Arbor like feel to it; Ann Arbor of the 1970s that is. Most of the students that frequent the place may well be graduate students, they look like people from that era, longer scruffier hair, jeans, and interestingly different shirts. One day, a fellow was wearing an Cambridge University hoodie. Another day, another guy had what might have been the official sneaker of my college years: the Adidas Samba, that distinctively black leather with three white stripes indoor soccer shoe. Often, the male students have t-shirts with slogans or emblems I have never seen and thus making me wonder wherever did they buy such shirts.

But the clientele is not all students. It is a true mix of older professional folks, retirees, and housewives. It might just be me or it could be the ambience of the place that makes me think this but everyone seems simultaneously more relaxed, more interesting, and thinking deeper thoughts in Newport Coffee than any of the surrounding Starbucks.

What brings everyone in is no doubt the coffee. At the Newport Coffee website www.mynewportcoffee.com you will learn that they roast their coffee in small batches making very fresh, strong, and flavorful coffee. It is the best cup of coffee around here, I would dare say in all of Lake County. The big black roaster is off in the corner of the place surrounded by burlap sacks of beans from South America, Africa, and Hawaii.

Being the unofficial coffeehouse of Trinity College, it is amazing the books that students are reading. Most of the time, the student patrons have a few books stacked on the table plus the one they are reading. More often than not, one of the books is the Bible. Being a naturally curious person bordering on the nosey, I note the titles when I can.

One lady was reading a book entitled, A Peculiar People. I simply assumed that it was about Armenians and if not about Armenians I was certain that it would have a chapter dedicated on me or my friend Ara Topouzian. Amazon.com provided the truth. The subtitle of the book is The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society and attempts to explore the role of church and individual Christians in these times when both church and faith are seemingly less influential.

Another fellow was reading a book entitled Sub-Merge. Again, I was able to get the title but the subtitle was in too fine a print to read across the room. I assumed the book was a novel about submarine warfare or a dark psychological thriller. Again, I was wrong. The subtitle of this book, again thanks to Amazon, was Living Deep in a Shallow World: Service, Justice and Contemplation Among the World’s Poor. Wow, what a great phrase… Living Deep in a Shallow World. I immediately wanted to borrow the phrase for a future letter. But this phrase actually defines the clientele of this place. Most of the people I see in Newport Coffee seem to be living deeper or wanting to live deeper.

When I went to the Trinity International University website, www.tiu.edu, I found that the university is truly founded on Christian principles and has a decidedly Christian mission. From the About section of the website:
Forming students to transform the world through Christ. At the heart of Trinity’s mission lies its commitment to engage the culture for Jesus Christ. Trinity’s purpose is to enable its graduates—in all schools and in every discipline—to think and live like Christians in the twenty-first century. We believe that God calls his people into many kinds of service; Trinity’s calling is to prepare them to serve for his glory.
I would guess both A Peculiar People and Sub-Merge should be required reading.

The book that really caught my eye was Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It was the second to last book by this noted author and Nobel Prize winner. I read it back in 1971 as a freshman at the University of Michigan. It was the one book we had to read and comment on in the required freshman English Composition course. I kind of liked the genre and certainly liked Steinbeck’s writing. I recall that the Graduate Assistant who was our professor disparaging this book and suggesting that there were much better books by Steinbeck to read. He thought we should have been reading The Grapes of Wrath. I had already read most of Steinbeck’s classics and read The Grapes of Wrath in my sophomore year. I was glad to have been exposed to a book that I normally would not have read.

There is not much I recall about Travels with Charley except that I enjoyed it. It was the first real literary travelogue I read. Since then I have enjoyed other books in this genre. I really enjoyed In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians by Philip Marsden. I never read Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries but I loved the film version.

I am amazed by these authors who take off on a trek, not sure of exactly the path they are taking or who they will meet along the way. I am even more amazed at the common people who welcome these travelers with open arms, tables, and homes. I am motivated to pick up Travels with Charley: In Search of America and see how I react to it thirty-eight years later.

Lastly, I was sitting in Newport one day, working on my laptop, perhaps even finishing up my February Letter. A young lady who works there was talking with a friend and customer. I was not really listening to what they were saying. But, I thought I heard the word Armenian used by the lady in the conversation but I wasn’t sure. I often think I hear the word Armenian being uttered. When I went up to the counter later for a refill, I asked her if she had used the word Armenian. She indeed had and informed me that she was Armenian. Her name is Nevair Jindoyan and had grown up in the All Saints Armenian Church in Glenview that I now attend. I think half of the church is actually related to her. She has a most lovely name, Nevair. It means gift in Armenian. I know only one other Nevair and always thought it was a lovely and special name.

I was even more delighted to find out that Nevair is actually the owner of Newport Coffee. She had just recently purchased it and was taking a year off from teaching to make the place her own and really learn the business.

There is another Armenian owned coffee or rather tea business in Chicagoland: Argo Tea www.argotea.com. They have thirteen stores of which twelve are in Chicago and one is in Evanston. The company was started by Arsen Avakian in 2003. Earlier this year when my son, Aram, was in town trying a case downtown we had an opportunity to stop by one of the stores. It was like 6:30 pm and the store was jammed. People, mostly younger, were working on their laptops or reading. There was music and people were talking but it was still someplace you could really concentrate if you needed to. It seemed lighter and airier than Starbucks. The main difference was the pots of different teas ready to be served. But it is not just a tea house. Argo Tea serves a wide variety of brewed and espresso coffee products as well. Certainly, Argo Tea is interested in growing but they seem to be doing it slowly and deliberately, a wise strategy in this economic environment.

It seems that I should facilitate Nevair who is interested in expanding her offerings into teas and is a coffee supplier to meet Arsen and explore how they might source each other products. Who knows?

So, you see? I was able to craft a travel letter without actually going very far. There is much to see in the world right around where we are. Maybe next year, I will buy a dog, a camper, and follow the route John Steinbeck took across this great land.