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Cheers for keeping Carol’s café open

Sometimes you wanna go where
Everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
 
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where
Everybody knows your name
 
The bar in the TV show “Cheers” was a fun-filled, made-up place. But now that we’re on the verge of losing a real place where they’re always glad you came — well, then it’s time to take things seriously.
Carol Ross dreamed for 20 years of opening a Middlebury coffeehouse. She and John Melanson worked for over a year to make that dream a physical reality.
At a time when America was waking up to the community values of café society — the “third place” after home and work — Carol’s Hungry Mind filled a crying need in Middlebury’s downtown.
Sure, we had the bagel shop, the diner and the always wonderful Otter Creek Bakery. A downtown gift shop and the old Frog Hollow gallery had also tried to meet the need for a coffeehouse.
But they didn’t have the infrastructure, music and physical space to accommodate busy home-office workers needing a change of scene, dawdling retirees lingering over a newspaper, tourists who wanted to sit and absorb the Middlebury vibe, and laptop-dwellers curled into their daily I-hunch.
Pancreatic cancer ended Carol Ross’s life in 2005 — just as the Hungry Mind Café was taking shape in the space on Merchants Row that was once occupied by a New Age gift shop. John carried the dream to reality after her passing.
Over the past 12 years, Carol’s has for thousands of us provided a home away from home, a second office, a place where everybody knows your name.
Old friends meet there over tea to catch up. Pastors plan their Sunday sermons there. A couple friends of mine have written large portions of their latest books within the earthy yellow, red-bordered walls of the high-ceilinged café.
I’ve plowed through many a column while downing a bagel and Americano at Carol’s. Hundreds of Middlebury College students have struggled through term papers, as they stared up at old pressed-tin ceiling for inspiration, or said a little prayer for an extension.
Carol’s has hosted open-mic nights, post-theater parties and live jazz shows. In addition to two couches and 15 tables upstairs, the downstairs often held an overflow crowd. Sen. Leahy met with students downstairs not long ago, and that space is still popular with alternative high school students.
People once bought shoes in this space when it was Abrams. Next door was the old Lockwood’s restaurant, which like Carol’s had a huge three-paned window looking out to Triangle Park and the town green.
But despite all Carol’s has brought to this community, we may soon be talking about it in the past tense, too. It’s in danger of becoming a Lockwood’s, Doria’s and Ski Haus for the 21st century.
It took a long time after its opening for the café to break even. The then-landlord and early vendors carried the place until it found its footing. It’s never been a big-money operation, and now new financial pressures have piled up.
Faced with the specter of railroad bridge construction that could shut down Middlebury’s downtown for months at a time, John Melanson last year opened the Carol’s diner on Route 7 in New Haven to provide another source of revenue.
He says the start-up costs of that endeavor have put some financial strain on the downtown café. But last winter was a tough one for downtown businesses. Then the summertime construction of temporary railroad bridges hit the café’s business hard, amplified by the resulting loss of nearby parking.
Now the town has eliminated even more, crucially important parking spaces outside the post office. They were wiped out for new bus stops. But these stops are less than three blocks from another, much better equipped bus stop on the west side of the new park (the site of the old municipal building).
I recognize the importance of bus stops for people who don’t drive. But by eliminating some parking near the post office — and by failing to find alternatives to future construction plans that will massively disrupt the downtown with the $52 million bridge project — I’ve gotta wonder if town officials really care about saving downtown businesses.
Without measures to protect existing businesses and fill empty storefronts, in a worst-case scenario we could end up with fancy new bridges over trains running through Nowhere: a place that used to be called downtown Middlebury.
So what’s to be done about the hub of local life that Carol’s has long been?
Responding to an email that owner John Melanson sent out to a few people last weekend, over 25 folks have stepped up to give him donations that we all hope will keep the café open in the short term. Doug Patterson started a GoFundMe campaign where supporters can also make online donations (at gofundme.com/carolshungrymind).
These donations are needed until John finds longer-term funding. Middlebury officials should also make one final push to find an alternative to the construction that will gut the downtown if the temporary bridges are replaced under the current plans.
As for Carol’s itself, I hope you’ll stop in for coffee or tea and a bite to eat. People there will know your name.
You’ll be helping to keep alive the reality that Carol Ross’s spirit and John Melanson’s tireless efforts have nurtured for over 12 years: coffee, conversation and community.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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