For those of you who know me, you know that a few years ago, I opened a coffeehouse called Lents Commons. A started it with a Craigslist-sourced business partner and a bunch of saved up Army bonus money. I had been inspired to open a creative-space/coffee house after working on Pickled, a film by Montetré. Having been a lifelong dream, I embarked on creating a space in which coffee would support art. I discovered a big, vacant corner store in a neighborhood that I had never stepped foot into. The rent was cheap, and the opportunity was there, so I went for it. A few months later I was the owner of an expansive coffeehouse wedged between a crumbing dive bar (and not the good kind of dive bar), a crumbing… whatever you want to call the New Copper Penny, and a gas station. Long story short, after two years, I found myself consumed with the minutiae of running a not-so-successful business with little time for anything else. But in the process, I had discovered a community existed in this oft-maligned part of Portland – a community who wanted good things to happen.
A recent article in the Willamette Week talks about the unrealized potential of Lents Town Center. This is the same potential I thought I was going to be a part of back in 2010 when I started work on the coffeehouse. We had the farmer’s market, art co-op, coffeehouse, MAX Greenline, and $96-million to throw at making Lents the next Belmont. Big projects would happen, so I thought – a New Seasons, a mixed use development in the old ballpark, maybe some new retailers and office space. The mayor even showed us a neat video with new 3 and 4 story buildings plopped on top of where (we all wish) the New Copper Penny used to be. But all I see are big holes – the PDC wiping the slate clean, preparing for the development that for sure will one day spring up. How I miss the Rapery… at least a physical standing structure made the intersection feel a little less like Ground Zero.
But while the pace of neighborhood development can, at best, be described as glacial, there are signs of life. The strip of storefronts to the north of Lents Commons did get a facelift. Riley’s did become the Eagle Eye, complete with a proprietor who cares about the neighborhood. At least there is somewhere to go. I see tiny libraries and a tool library. Lents Commons’ space is now a juice bar – maybe not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
BUT THERE’S NO COFFEE. Ok, you can get coffee at Chevron, at El Pato Feliz, at Olivers, at the Eagle Eye. Heck, probably even at the Old Copper Penny. Sorry, New Copper Penny – at least in the parking lot. One of the things I loved about Portland was the ability to throw a rock and hit a coffee shop no matter what intersection you were standing at. I loved spending my morning, drinking excessive amounts of caffeine, reading the New Yorker, and interacting with the neighborhood people. For me, the neighborhood coffeehouse was the ground-zero of community, and my failure at maintaining a coffeeshop is probably why Lents is a series of vacant lots fronted by bio-swales.
So, I failed at catapulting Lents into becoming the next Belmont. But soon, Lents will have something that Belmont won’t have… GOATS! I see this as the first step in transforming Lents into the neighborhood we all want it to be. I must be a part of it.
After escaping from Lents Commons, I took some time to recover. Working 12-hours-a-day, 7 days a week tends to burn a person out. I went on road trips, went to national parks, I went to Burning Man. I finished college with two degrees (community development and geography), I produced a feature film and I realized… I needed to be able to pay the rent. I went to work at our lovely, local Fred Meyer, where I got to see many of my old LC customers. But even being a manager (or Person in Charge, as it were), I detest the fact that I’m working my ass off to enable the CEO of Kroger to make more in 4 hours than they pay me in a year. Granted, Freddy’s gave me the opportunity to not become homeless, and it is nice getting a meager paycheck every Friday, it’s not fulfilling. Enough time has passed that I can look back on the days of LC and think, maybe I wasn’t making a killing, but I was part of something more important. But I think the most valuable education I received in the last four years wasn’t from PSU, but from being a struggling small business owner.
As I move forward, it’s important to understand the past. What was wrong with Lents Commons? It didn’t start with the right focus. The ridiculous theatre concept never paid off (the one theatre tenant we did have stiffed us on a major portion of their fees), the lack of a proper HVAC system turned the space into a defacto oven in the summer (not good when your business was selling coffee), lack of parking, unreliable hours, personnel issues, low profit margins on food, and the sheer expansiveness of the space created a sparsely populated, unwelcoming environment. It was trying to be too many things: a music venue, a bar, a coffeeshop, a restaurant, a gallery, but it was never really set up to succeed at any one thing, but that’s not for lack of involvement from the community. It was wonderful to see people who cared set up improv nights, open mic nights, poetry nights, etc. But a business is a business and all of the community stuff happening doesn’t matter much when you can’t pay the gas bill.
So, now we have goats. Seeing everyone get excited about goats made me think that there is a shimmer of hope for this community. The goats are a sign of progress – of something happening. It makes me want to make something happen, to be part of the community again. The goats, the tool library, the farmers’ market, miniature libraries, the Eagle Eye, the grocery co-op, a community is an aggregate of all these things and more, but it’s lacking that coffeehouse in which to gather and share ideas, and that’s what I want, even if only for the purely selfish reason that I love coffee. Aside from waving at people at Freddy’s, I haven’t felt like part of the community. I consider getting involved, and going to meetings where people talk about the things they want to see, but for me, creating a place makes me feel included.
I have considered a location and concept for a coffeeshop. The focus is coffee and pie. I’ve talked to a baker. I want to create a much more intimate space, make it nice, capitalized, and consistent. Simple. Coffee and pie, a community bookshelf and a decent selection of magazines (the kind with more words than pictures). By the slice, or whole. Good pies, handmade. No cans of pumpkin puree, the real deal. I have begun work on a business plan, and will be seeking input of the community as to what they want to see in a neighborhood business. I want to apply the lessons that I learned with LC and apply them to a new venture that meets the needs of the community while paying my rent, and freeing myself from the shackles of big-corporate-grocery. I want to create jobs for the community, and I want to contribute to the success of Lents.
Call me crazy.