It always seemed out of place, tucked in between a furniture store and a women’s boutique. Its checkered logo on the storefront didn’t match how I saw the place and the screen door behind the main entrance seemed odd sandwiched between designer living room sets and pricy hand lotions.
But, they never acted as a stop sign, at least not for me.
Located three blocks from my Sioux Falls apartment, Michelle’s Coffee was my spot. We all have our places that we frequent more than others; those bars, restaurants or coffee hang outs that always seem to say, “You belong here.” In that city, Michelle’s was the place I belonged.
Transferring from Brookings, I adopted Michelle’s as my writing place to replace Cottonwood. It became a catch-up lounge with old, and new, friends and my boardroom for meetings with The Post contributors. Sometimes, I’d slip in there to read and scribble thoughts into my journal.
There was never a time of day that I didn’t like going to the narrow coffee shop. The morning crowd was feisty old men, tearing apart Argus Leader headlines and hashing out solutions to the city’s problem. Michelle, the owner, would offer her input and nod her red-haired head. Employees at nearby businesses would float in for their morning lattes and the mid-morning to afternoon crew took over their shift. Some would hunker over books or computers, unfazed by others in the room, and others would hash out last night’s happenings to Michelle. The evening crowd stopped in for a late coffee or an early beer and their main mission was socializing.
From all my time spent people watching, everyone was a regular at Michelle’s. She knew at least 80 percent of her customers, and by the end of my time living in Sioux Falls, we were on a first name basis.
Michelle’s didn’t have the best coffee in town. On the other side of the city, a group of young baristas whips up smooth concoctions. Another shop, not too far from Michelle’s, was always my pick for just coffee, well, and a cookie or scone. But the first shop was 20 minutes away and always busy, due to its proximity to Interstate-29 and 41st Street. The second shop is no longer a hidden gem and is often packed. It also lacks the warmth of Michelle’s, the “come sit here and get lost” invitation.
Michelle’s was open later – on nights with live music, it was open till 11 p.m. – served a limited variety of soups and sandwiches, a great selection of loose-leaf tea and, maybe the biggest selling point, beer. After a long day at work, I could stop in for a craft and sometime pounding out my thoughts.
The shop’s tables and chairs appeared as if they were picked up at thrift stores or garage sales. Fliers for live music and local artist shows plastered the entrance and rustic coffee tables, light stands and a bookshelf were scattered through the area. The walls were painted different colors – green, yellow and a pinkish orange, if I remember correctly. Along the wall opposite from the counter, the owner rotated local art and I once randomly found myself in the middle of an artist reception. (She can over and said hello, even though I was the only person in the room she didn’t know. I wish I had the money to have bought one of her pieces.)
My favorite spot, the one I tried to nab before I order coffee, was near the storefront window. It was a collection of leather chairs, a couch, plants and worn wood furniture. I’d often position myself so I could stare out the window and watch the night rainfall on the streetlight-lit Phillips Avenue or muse at Saturday shoppers go walk past.
After I left Sioux Falls, when I went back to visit friends, I always made a point to stop into Michelle’s. Maybe to chat with a friend or to write. Like most places in Downtown Sioux Falls, it brought back sweet memories, although that year I lived there was extremely challenging.
Yesterday, I found out that Michelle’s is no longer. Michelle sold it to a local chef, who has now turned it into a delicatessen. Although I don’t recognize the name, I have a good idea of who now owns the shop based on the faces I memorized from my afternoons loitering the coffee shop.
From what I have been told, the deli seems like a great addition to downtown and the new owner is a “culinary artist,” a friend on Twitter said. I am sure it is delicious and I will make a point to try it in the year 2014, but I will miss Michelle’s.
Our favorite locals open and close like friends come and go, and so when I heard that the coffee shop was no longer, it felt like a friend left. That year in Sioux Falls was really difficult (maybe someday I’ll get into why, but not now) and Michelle’s was my therapy. It was more than one time that I went in there to clear my head and ended up crying over a cup of mocha or bottle of beer. I still have journal entries scrawled in pain from that year, most of them written at Michelle’s. She was there for me when I really felt like I had no one.
Now she is gone and I am a bit sad. Places – more than just bars and coffee shops – leave impressions on our life and they play a part of who we are. Lesotho and Niger forever will be printed on my heart. Michelle’s didn’t turn my life upside down, but it was still on my path. I tried to recall other bars, restaurants or coffee shops that housed me during vital growing times and the only other that would have such a breath-knocking effect if it were to close is O’Hares. (If O’Hares closes, I am ETing.)
Michelle’s is just a place and I’ll find other coffee shops that become my spot, but its closure reminds me, even though I don’t always think it does, life goes on without me. In my 27-month absence, there will be births, weddings, breakups and deaths. It’s life and I can’t stop it because I needed to find myself in Africa. Reminiscing is one of my favorite hobbies and it is sad to think I’ll never have another mocha or cup of lapsang souchong. I’ll never sit in those tan chairs again.
But part of this experience is to let go of some things, and I suppose my favorite coffee shop is one of them.
The last time I was there was during my final week in South Dakota. My friend’s stand-up routine was an excuse for one last trip to Sioux Falls and to say a final goodbye to my friends. Before the show, one of my dearest friends and I met there for coffee and tea and to enjoy each other’s company before 27 months of silence. We sat in the tan chairs, sipped our drinks and laughed. I didn’t know it would be my last memory of the place I cherished, but it was a perfect ending.