The Sidewalk Outside Ann’s Coffee Shop
By Erik Helzer
It was Monday, and four boys who could not have been more than 13 years of age shuffled along the sidewalk in front of the open doors of Ann’s Coffee Shop on Santa Cruz Avenue. Two boys led the way, chattering confidently; the other two walked with heads down, eyes firmly affixed to the glowing displays of their mobile devices. The boys likely did not know that after today Ann’s would be a relic of history, a memory from a fading era. It wasn’t just that the boys did not see the sign announcing the closing of the 75-year old coffee shop in Menlo Park, California, at 3 PM on April 19. It was that the shop was an anachronism in the town and the time they inhabited.
When Ann Gilbert opened her doors to the town at the end of the second Great War, few of her diners would have believed that in its lifetime, Ann’s Coffee Shop would bear witness to a complete transformation of the ways that the children and grandchildren of these early patrons would eat, gather, socialize, work, and live -- let alone that the most recent and mightiest architects of these changes would be the companies that would come to call this town and this Valley its “headquarters,” rather than “home.” These transformations would ultimately be the little shop’s undoing; a slow bleed over decades followed by the hemorrhaging force of a global pandemic that masked and shuttered local economies throughout the country and the world. The fate of Ann’s Coffee Shop was anything but unique, but there was something poignant and melancholic about watching this community eatery finally surrender itself to the impersonal forces of technological colonization, which had eroded in people’s minds the need for a fixture like Ann’s in the modern world.
The yellow and red vinyl booths inside Ann’s coffee shop had sat vacant for much of the last year due to county and state orders. The chairs around the counter, designed so patrons could swivel left for a fresh napkin or right for the sugar dispenser, had lain still. Ann’s had kept its doors open by erecting a tent on its front sidewalk and into the main street. For much of that year, Ann’s business was dependent upon the weather and the wherewithal of its regulars to commit to reliable patronage. The times that year were tough, and tougher on days when it rained, or when smoke from forest fires blew in, or when a myriad of other forces conspired to make Ann’s sidewalk inhospitable for those seeking a simple, familiar, and affordable meal on the quiet stretch of road that comprised downtown.
If Ann’s business had been half as steady throughout the year as it was on this day of final farewells, perhaps it would have lived to see its 76th or even 80th birthday. On the other hand, maybe nothing would have changed at all. Ann’s was located in a commercial building that had recently been sold. The building’s new owners were no doubt eager to double the rents or replace this quaint kitchen with something shiny and new, something that appealed to a 21st century tech-forward sensibility or to the pocketbooks of those who had ridden an IPO wave into a zip code that was as economically unwelcoming as any in the country, if not the world.
Throughout the day, a steady stream of patrons came to pay their respects to the coffee shop on Santa Cruz Avenue. An older generation, who had likely called Menlo Park home for decades, sat over plates of eggs and pancakes reading newspapers and drinking mugs of bottomless coffee. The ones who sat together talked in bittersweet terms about the state of the world as embodied in the single story of Ann’s. The ones who sat alone fastidiously worked puzzles or simply looked around and took in this moment, as historic as it was commonplace. When they were ready to leave, patrons settled their tabs from memory by tucking an assortment of bills under their saucers and, with a final glance toward the open doors and maybe a wave to someone inside, sauntered into the midday sun that for the last time shone down on the bustling sidewalk outside the open doors of Ann’s Coffee Shop.