So it appears that I don’t have to start my post with “It’s been a while since my last post”, this week I feel a bit inspired to create and share so hopefully I will be able to keep things rolling along. I read an interesting article a few weeks ago talking about the “Third Wave of Coffee Shops in Halifax” and it really got me thinking about how a large part of my life has revolved around the coffee shop experience. Beginning when I was around 16 years old visiting the smoke-filled Tim Hortons on Portland Street, close to where I grew up and my current mix of Starbucks and great local spots like Java Blend and Two if By Sea. Wow! I have spend a lot of time sipping on coffee over the years.
My love affair with coffee and the cafes where I have indulged in that lovely nectar is also full of nostalgia, fond memories, feelings of loss but also hopes for the future. I know a very unlikely comminality between coffee and life. I remember the very first sunset that I ever took the time to take in a watch from start to finish. It was beautiful beyond words. It was at a very sensitive time in my life and I was travelling in Scotland during the Summer months. This particular night I was twenty minutes outside of Edinburgh on a beautiful beach with rocky cliffs in the background and islands with outcrops of impressive stone casting surreal shapes across the water. It was around 10:30 in the evening, the sun tends to set later then in Nova Scotia, and I reclined in the sand and took the sites and colours in while I had the feeling that a new chapter in my world has begun.
So what do sunsets and coffee shops have in common? My take on it is that each time something changes it is like a sunset and a sunrise. Be that a major life event or the closure of a favourite shop, or the end of an entire era. My affair with coffee shops began during an interesting coffee shop era in Halifax that really began when I was about 17 years old. Coming across the bridge was a big adventure and a very new experience compared to my suburban High School experience. I would hop on my motorcycle and travel to a different place, previously fairly inaccessible. These are the coffee shops of the late 1990’s that shaped my experience. I have sprinkled a few songs in the post that I like, have recently discovered and one from Halifax in the late 1990’s.
Grabba Jabba – My first cafe experience
The first coffee shop that I frequented, besides the old smoke filled Tim Horton’s down the road from my childhood home, was a local chain called Grabba Jabba. A little shop with seats in the back and the view of an office lobby from the back window. I recall decent coffee and my first experience with a latte. We would stop in while wandering down Spring Garden Road and chat for hours at a time on couches that were at the very back of the cafe.
They expanded to a spot in Bedford but closed sometime while I was away in Ottawa. Now all that remains of my first cafe is a Bell Aliant Store with no traces of the original location.
The Second Cup – The first big chain in Halifax long before the arrival of Starbucks
The second cup was open on Spring Garden Road up until a few months ago. It holds a special place in my memory. I used to spend a lot of time there drinking coffee, reading and people watching. It was a fantastic location right in the middle of the city with a great view, big windows and for a chain quite good coffee. It changed very little over the years, same terrible bathrooms but very welcoming staff. It used to be my go-to-spot to take dates prior to a movie or a play at Neptune.
Even after Starbucks opened across the street, my brother and I would always go to Second Cup for a coffee when we felt like a quick break during the week. I remember it evolving over the years, WiFi used to be pay to use, then free. The chairs were well worn and aged but that was part of the charm. It was a constant that I felt would never change. Alas it is gone, with a new shop replacing it. Maybe I will go and sit in my old seat and once again watch the people walk by.
Cafe Mokka – Then Tribeca now an empty shell
In the mid-1990’s Halifax was going through an interesting change. There was energy in the downtown, a feeling that almost anything was possible and the city was on the verge of something great. The Indie music scene was thriving, rent was still cheap downtown and full of University students, artist and the street were still a bit on the grungy side but yet very vibrant. In this atmosphere a number of Indie Coffee shops sprung up throughout the city. Starbucks was years away from invading the city and the only alternative was one of the Canadian chains or Tim Horton’s.
My absolute favourite was Cafe Mokka with its legendary Mokachino. My good friend Dave and I began visiting the spot when we were in High School, both with long hair and motorbikes and the feeling that we were modern day poets and this was our place to enjoy a coffee with local artwork on the walls, old brick walls and free pool. Music played and smoke rings filled the lofty space. It closed years ago but I used to love going to Tribecca a bar that opened in the space but closed about two years ago. It felt familiar and wonderful, very comforting and a bit of nostalgia always accompanied my visits.
As a sign of the times and the change in the city I went to the Starbucks on Barrington Street and saw a familiar face. The old barista at Cafe Mokka, someone who epitomized the place and the time was now behind the counter of an American chain, his plaid shirt replaced by a freshly pressed uniform and his once long hair neatly cut. We both recognized each other and I could see a sense of loss in his eyes. The days of the real Halifax coffee shop were long gone and never to return.
The Perfect Cup – Now the Coburg Coffee Shop
The one coffee shop in Halifax that closely resembles the old cafes of Halifax is the Coburg Coffee Shop. A great little place right down the road from Dal Campus, with a great local feel and the artsy feel of Halifax years ago. Before it was the Coburg Coffee Shop it was The Perfect Cup. A space that took up the entire building, not just the one floor that is left in the current setup. It used to be a pharmacy with a post office, I remember the old post box still in the wall by the stairs going to the second floor.
It was full of hidden tables and chairs and a great spot to vanish with a few friends to discuss life and catch up over some ok coffee. There did very well and opened a second location on Spring Garden but closed in the early 2000’s, I did a google search and all trace of the old shop has vanished like it never existed. A very common theme for the cafes that have closed over the years.
The Dandelion Cafe
The Dandilion Cafe was a small obscure little coffee shop with decent coffee, well not that great, but it it made up for it with great atmosphere. This was exactly what most of the fly by night independent coffee shops were modelled on. Local art, indie music, an influx of students or creative types. Basically a spot to study, drink coffee and smoke. It was a model that worked well until tastes for really good coffee changed and the coffee shop was not longer a place you could spend hours in. It also had a great little patio in the back, that felt like it should be the desk for a little apartment. It was staffed by friendly student and very short lived. For all its flaws it did have an atmosphere that I wish some of the new independent spots would have. Worth a remark but not much more to say.
Perks – A Waterfront Local Landmark
The last spot on the list for today is Perks, which was a local chain of coffee shops that were a part of the Halifax landscape up until a few years ago. The first and most memorable location was right by the ferry terminal on the waterfront and was pretty much the first thing you saw when you landed in Halifax.
It was the first of the posh coffee shops to appear in Halifax, the countertop was made of locally quarried marble and it was filled with people 24/7. In fact when I was in University it was open 24 hours a day and used to be the last spot on any bar night that I would go to get a late night coffee and call a cab. Every time I walk by and see the Tim Hortons in its place a part of me aches thinking that something local and rather special was replaced by yet another Tim Hortons. Oh Halifax is this now how we greet our visitors.
Lots of memories have come flooding through my mind after looking at these pictures and remembering the nights spent at each and every one of these coffee shops. The scenery has changed in Halifax, Downtown is more upscale and filled with less and less students, Agricola and the North End is starting to have the kind of feel Downtown Halifax used to have. As these shops closed, or perhaps because of the arrival of Starbucks, which is now on every major corner and the coffee is good, the atmosphere is chain inspired and foreign. Like a sunrise which always follows the sunset there is some good news in the coffee shop scene, Two if By Sea, Just Us, Java Blend and a handful of other local shops are coming in and bringing a more polished local feel. The coffee is better but I still long for some of the gritty beauty of the old coffee shops in Halifax. As I think of things that change and people I miss I remember the way things change and how I long for the old memories. But the reality is that time changes everything and usually when things end we may miss the past, long for the moments but we usually end up with something that is more fitting to our current lives.