Behind the counter of Southeast Grind, barista Vincent Young made a white chocolate mocha and a bagel sandwich. On the other side of the counter, Vincent Damewood worked on his laptop, and the two talked about their shared interest of gaming. Young paused as a customer came in and asked for advice on what sandwich to order.
The scene could be at home in any Portland coffee shop, except that in this shop, it happens each morning at 3 a.m.
For one more day.
The coffee shop at the corner of Southeast Powell Boulevard and 13th Place will close its doors after Saturday night, shuttering the only round-the-clock coffee shop in the Portland metro area.
Owner Kacey Birch, who opened the shop in 2009, said the store hadn’t had a lease in six years. Inspections for a potential buyer turned up more structural problems with the building than she’d realized.
Hundreds of customers stopped by the shop during the last week to have a final cup of coffee, but some lingered — as they’ve done for the 10 years the business has been open.
“I’ve been really sad,” said Reid Wahl, as he worked on some homework on Tuesday around 2 a.m. “Most of the friends I’ve made since I’ve lived here have been from this shop — it’s a place where you can be as social as you want to, or not.”
Birch stumbled into cafe-ownership by accident. While selling insurance, she called the owner of the building’s former occupant, the Fireside Coffee Lodge, to see if he wanted to set up group benefits. When she found out he was selling the business, she had an idea.
“Thirty days prior to getting keys, I had no idea I’d be a coffee shop owner,” she said.
It was 2009, right after the economy had crashed. Birch said she wanted to create somewhere that felt like a relief from the upheaval many people were facing.
“People were surviving on coffee during that time,” she said.
At night, the shop takes on a different crowd, becoming a haven for artists, students, food service workers and people who just need a place to be.
Michael Stacy comes to the shop every night, after his job at Ringside Steakhouse, where he works as a dishwasher. Between midnight and 1 a.m., he orders his favorite chai and some food, and relaxes.
“It’s accepting,” he said. “It’s a motley variety of what Portland is about.”
Young, who started working at Southeast Grind four years ago, said Birch’s counterculture approach to owning a business has kept him around.
“I think it’s absolutely vital in any community to have a space like this,” Young said, recalling his own experience as a homeless youth. “Of course we’re a business, and we want to make money to cover our expenses, but it’s also a place where people can feel safe. Anyone who comes in is welcome here.”
The shop’s policy is that each person in the shop has to make a purchase. But fruit is $1 per piece — recently up from 50 cents. A person can come in, buy an orange, and stay at the shop all night.
The baristas, too, often help out people who are struggling.
“There are definitely times I’d just take money out of the tip jar and buy people coffee, and I know a lot of people on the night shift have the same mentality,” Young said.
Eric Simon, a makeup artist and hip-hop choreographer, has been coming to the shop for a little more than a year, after she moved to Portland from Houston.
Young was the first person she met here, and the two hit it off instantly.
“Do you remember the show ‘Cheers’?” Simon said, referring to the sitcom bar “where everyone knows your name.” “That’s kind of the feel you get here.”
After she moved here, Simon, a transgender woman, went through some tough times, and she ended up houseless. During those times, she turned to the coffee shop.
Damewood, a programmer, said he keeps such odd sleeping hours that the shop is one of the few places he can go when he needs to get out of the house. Without it, he said, he’s going to have to learn to “exercise patience.”
The demand for coffee and sandwiches doesn’t dwindle at night. The shop stays full with students, artists, people in the tech industry and the homeless. Around 3 a.m., Young said another wave comes in — people from the service industry and dancers from local strip clubs.
Birch said she hopes someone else will see the potential and open up another 24-hour shop.
“I have customers looking for that spot, baristas who’d love to work that shift,” she said.
Birch’s two oldest children, now 5 and 2, have grown up at the shop, and she met their father while she was working as a barista.
“Relationships have formed, books have been written, classes have been passed,” Birch said. “I’m very thankful for the opportunity and all the connections that have happened in here.”
Without the shop, Simon said, she’ll likely go back to spending the wee hours doing what she used to do — practicing choreography in the park and sewing costumes for her work as a drag entertainer at C.C. Slaughter’s and Darcelle’s.
Simon said the shop offered a bit of respite from a demanding world.
“This is not an easy life,” Simon said. “If you’re homeless, if you have a home, rich, poor, it’s not easy in this world nowadays. To have a place where you can breathe and be yourself — it’s not going to be here anymore.”
—Jayati Ramakrishnan; 503-221-4320; [email protected]; @JRamakrishnanOR
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