Thursday, December 11, 2014

Time for one last cup before they go

Robbie and Ellen
PANAMA CITY — I had coffee with Robbie Fehrenbach and Ellen Mapelsden on Thursday morning, and we talked about the little shop they opened in St. Andrews in 1998.

St. Andrews Coffee House will close its doors Dec. 20, although Robbie and Ellen assure longtime customers and friends that the new owner, James Pigneri, will reopen under a slightly changed name and menu in early January 2015. (Stay tuned to and these pages for details when the St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro will debut.)

“We can’t wait,” Ellen said of Pigneri’s reopening. “We plan to come here for good coffee and a good meal.”

The duo once told me they opened the shop “on a dare.” They said in front of the wrong people that “somebody ought to do something” in St. Andrews, and that someone pointed out they were somebody, too.

“For us, it was a means to an end,” Robbie said, that end being to revitalize their beloved St. Andrews community. “Over the years, it has made us so busy that we have much less time for community involvement.”

Their grandfather, Ed Day, arrived in St. Andrews in 1887 as a child. The building the coffeehouse occupies was built in 1927. Great Uncle Bill opened Gainer Brothers’ Grocery there, and their Aunt Weezie cut meat in the same spot where they now make sandwiches.

They enjoy “doing everything” from taking orders, to cooking, to serving tables, to running the register, Ellen said. But as business has grown, doing everything has become more difficult.

“We opened a little coffee shop, and it’s turned into a food place,” Robbie said. “It’s a faster pace than we can keep up. It’s growing, and it needs to grow, and for that it needs a new set-up.”

Recent years have seen a “younger demographic” frequent the area, including families and young professionals, and that makes them hopeful their work is bearing fruit.

“We’re so excited that our baby has grown up, and it’s going to continue,” Ellen said. “It’s time to pass the torch.”

The Coffee House will open regular hours for its final week in this incarnation, and will run a special fundraiser on its final day. From 7 to 11 a.m. Dec. 20, a minimum $5 donation will get you a drink and a simple breakfast item (no eggs or regular breakfast menu will be served). Every penny of the day’s proceeds will go to Lucky Puppy Rescue and Castaway Cats.

“It will be a little send-off and a little fun,” Ellen said.

I will miss Robbie and Ellen. I meet with friends for lunch at the shop each week, and was honored when I’d become enough of a fixture for them to know my “regular” order. They labeled us the “Marvels” and reserved our table with a sign they fashioned using a toy Batmobile.

“It’s bittersweet. We wanted to leave it when it would be hard to leave, not when we were tired of it. So it’s a good thing,” Ellen said. “Robbie and I are actually starters. When we started with this, we had no idea we’d still be doing it all these years later.”


Thursday, December 04, 2014

Taking candy from strangers

PANAMA  CITY — My parents taught me never to take candy from strangers. My children heard the same rule as they were growing up.

Monday, I broke that age-old imperative.

Entering the downtown Post Office, I joined a queue of people waiting for their chance to do business with one of the two clerks. Up ahead, I saw an older gentleman in a denim shirt and cap shaking a woman’s hand. She had a confused expression, and I saw him pass something to her during the handshake.

He moved on to the person ahead of her in line, and she opened her right palm to examine the mint candies he had given her. Little white-and-red swirls of  sugar wrapped in cellophane.

I wondered then if she was leery of accepting candy from a stranger, and I counted myself lucky to be entering behind him so I didn’t have to make that same decision.

“May I shake your hand?” I heard him ask the person in front of her. They shook hands, and he passed some more candy in the handshake.

He continued in this way to the front of the line, then spoke to the clerks, who appeared to know him. He turned to a young man who had stepped out of the line when a third clerk appeared to ask if anyone was there for General Delivery. He asked if he could shake the young man’s hand, but the guy held up a mint and said, “You did already, thank you.”

I saw the old man notice me at the back of the line, then. He started my way, and I wondered what my response would be when he asked. I hoped nothing smart-alecky would erupt, unbidden, out of my mouth. I looked up at the boxes wrapped in shiny Christmas paper on the walls and part of me hoped he would just bypass me.

But he rounded the kiosk of Priority Mail envelopes and extended his right hand. I spotted the candy wrappers peeking out.

“May I shake your hand?” he asked in an accent from the woods where I grew up.

“Sure,” I said. He gave my right hand a friendly tug, pressing two pieces of candy into my palm as he did so. I said thank you, then I asked how he was doing.

He almost turned away, then he looked up at me from under the bill of his cap.

“Not so great, if I’m still here and not in heaven,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

I smiled as if I understood, but my true emotions were conflicted. I looked at the candy in my hand, then back at him as he opened the door and stepped through, shaking his head and repeating, “I am ready to go.”

It occurred to me to question if one should eat candy that came from a man who’s anticipating the afterlife so eagerly. But I unwrapped the cellophane and popped a piece in my mouth anyway.

It was sweet, and minty, and smelled like Christmas days visiting my great-grandfather. He always kept mints in the house — old-fashioned ones that melted in your mouth. And then I recalled this older fellow at Century First Baptist Church who would give the kids at the evening service mints or butterscotches when I was little. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time, and it was a sweet recollection.

I looked over my shoulder and saw the old man talking to someone in the main lobby, reaching out to shake hands.

Some days, like this old guy, I’m not doing so great. But I’m not yet ready to go. And so long as strangers can still offer a handshake, a smile, a gentle word — maybe even a candy mint — I’m not sure I should be in any great hurry.

Maybe, at my age, it’s okay to take candy from strangers. Maybe, in specific circumstances, we should be willing to take the chance.

Or maybe all of us in the Post Office that morning just got lucky and shared a little Christmas miracle.