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Back Buzz - December 4, 1998

M Coy Books & Espresso, 117 Pine Street, Downtown

M Coy Books is a small, welcoming bookstore which also serves espresso. A small cluster of black tables and chairs constitutes the cafe area in the back, and the coffee counter which runs along the back wall is decorated with table lamps, a gift-wrapping station, and jars of biscotti. There are posters plastering the back wall and racks of books everywhere. This is a bookstore cafe as opposed to a cafe in a bookstore -- the tables are nestled gregariously among the bookshelves. As I seated myself a few days ago I heard NPR news emanating from the speakers, soothing my fatigue from the pre-Xmas mess outside (or Xmess, as I call this time of year). But wait a minute -- wasn't it only December 2nd? Why did I feel like I'd better have my Xmess shopping done or else? Have they moved the holiday up without telling me?

Ah, but back to the calming balm of M Coy Books. My short double cappuccino was served in a tall thin white china cup with black trim; not exactly a proper cappuccino cup but nice nevertheless. And I was given a spoon, too -- a regular teaspoon as opposed to a demitasse spoon, but at least I didn't have to ask for it. The bookstore uses Coloiera coffee from British Columbia, and my cappuccino was strong and robust with a pleasant cloud of milk foam. It was actually much better than any other bookstore cappuccinos I've tasted.

I'm very happy about this; I wanted M Coy espresso to be good. They're one of the few remaining little-guy bookstores, an independent situated a mere three blocks from the bustling downtown Borders and only five blocks from the brand new Barnes & Noble. Sad but true, I must admit I don't buy many books at M Coy anymore. And it's not Borders or Barnes & Noble which have drawn me away -- it's Amazon.Com! Much as I hate to admit it, I do like being able to look up my more eclectic books by title or author instead of having to worry about what section of a bookstore I would find them in. I'm not talking about the literature or travel writing or physics texts or cookbooks I buy -- I'm talking about books on forensic science, urban design and history, economic botany, odd inventions, a constantly-growing wish list of literary miscellany. I mean, I suppose I could ask a bookstore clerk where to find a book. But to actually talk to another human being, in the flesh? Come on, isn't this 1998? Why would anybody want to do a thing like that?

But I must put in a plug for the independent bookstores, because the fact that I do buy an awful lot of books means I don't buy all of them at Borders or through Amazon.Com. I do end up buying quite a few at places like M Coy and Elliott Bay Books and Queen Anne Books and Fremont Place Books and Bailey Coy Books and Left Bank Books and Red and Black Books and Tower Books, not to mention Cody's Books in Berkeley, City Lights in San Francisco, Powell's in Portland, and Midnight Express in Santa Monica. And to tell you the truth, even though they have fifty bajillion titles I just don't think there's a very good selection at Barnes & Noble.

Ah, yes, books make excellent Xmess gifts, don't they? Perhaps I should buy something for everybody on my list. When is Christmas, anyway? November 25? I used to be amazed at how the moment Thanksgiving was over all the Xmess decorations went up; but I'll swear this year it happened right after Halloween. Or, wait a minute -- wasn't the Bon Marché's giant holiday star up before Halloween?

Speaking of time being compressed, going backwards, or having no cohesive structure, here's an e-mail exchange between me and my Bay Area friend from this past summer -- or was it the summer before?

Last night I heard a brief headline about Hillary Clinton and her dream of teaching today's students more about history. Apparently she said she was hoping "to make yesterday a part of tomorrow." So if yesterday became a part of tomorrow, what would the displaced part of tomorrow become? Part of today? Perhaps this morning? And if so, where would this morning end up -- as part of yesterday?

This would wreak havoc with work and sleep schedules, not to mention medication schedules. Let's see...if I was supposed to take a pill every morning and every night, then would I have to take one yesterday morning and then one yesterday at noon, if yesterday afternoon were to become this morning? That would mean that instead of taking one this morning, which would become tomorrow afternoon, I would have to take it today at noon and again tonight. And then tomorrow morning I'd do the same schedule as yesterday, because tomorrow afternoon would have become yesterday morning.

Do they even make day-of-the-week pill cases for schedules like this?

Last year has become today! Our Microsoft Outlook mail system was shut down for an hour, and now new messages are arriving dated July 17, 1997. What date do you see on this message?

If yesterday becomes a part of tomorrow, will that give us a chance to buy winning lottery tickets before the drawing?

Have you noticed how difficult it is these days, when you're walking around the city, to distinguish the crazy street people babbling to themselves from ordinary people talking on their cell phones? I'll swear the only difference is the telephone in the hand; they're all saying the same things.

Today was the second day an entire Salvation Army brass band was manning the entrance of Larry's Market. The Army seems to have modernized; the band was executing surprisingly modern and dissonant renditions of Christmas carols.

The Salvation Army seems to have modernized its hiring practices as well, branching out to the mentally ill. On Monday afternoon Max and I stopped at our usual supermarket to do our weekly shopping. As we entered the store the Salvation Army volunteer was ringing his bell quite vehemently and continuously, his gaze focused intently on some distant point. As we worked our way through the aisles of the store I felt as if my ears were ringing. By the time we got up to the checkstand line, maybe twenty minutes later, I realized it was the volunteer's bell I'd been hearing the entire time, ringing and ringing and ringing loudly on and on nonstop without so much as a breath. I also noticed the rather stressful look on our checker's normally calm face as well as the bewildered and exasperated expressions on the faces of most of the customers. When we got up to the counter the checker gazed at us glassy-eyed and said between his teeth, "This has been going on all day!" I glanced around and noticed the other checkers and boxpeople -- all normally very outgoing and friendly folk -- had clenched jaws and desperate looks. Suddenly the ringing stopped abruptly, and we watched as the assistant manager, a full-figured and commanding matron, waltzed into the store and headed for the back office, a satisfied smirk on her face and a suspicious jingling object concealed in her hand. The checkers practically cheered; the store was finally quiet.

As we passed the Salvation Army volunteer on the way to our car, he still had that same obsessive-compulsive expression on his face as if he were counting dots far away; but his empty hands now hung limply at his side, their job finished for the day.

I have somehow managed so far to avoid encountering any Salvation Army bell ringers. Perhaps Berkeley (where I usually try to shop), while being tolerant of the homeless and nudists, is as hostile to bell ringers as it is to nuclear power.

That does sound like a cosmic moment at the supermarket -- as cathartic as seeing Robert Stack (wasn't it?) beat up the soliciting Hare Krishnas in the terminal in the movie Airport.

Perhaps when I retire and turn my attention to raising funds as a volunteer activity, I will use a whoopie cushion to attract attention, blowing it up and gently lowering myself onto it time after time, all day long.