Throughout Philadelphia, baristas help serve up our day at moments when we most need the experience of something warm to cup our hands around, a smell other than whatever was at the office, and a low-pressure, community-vibed howdy-do.
And I’m always interested to learn about the folks on the other side of the counter — life has usually landed them there for an interesting reason. Some workers see it as a place to learn and move on from. Some, like Dawn Lewis, a 46-year-old writer who lives in Northeast Philadelphia and works at the café at the Barnes and Noble in Devon, appreciate and even love the way the rhythms and culture of a café threads together with other life passions. They don’t see it as a transition; they see their jobs as right where they want to be.
Lewis’ introduction to the café world came a little later in life than for most baristas. She had worked as a medical assistant, as a certified nursing assistant, and in customer-service jobs, but by 2008 she found herself in Philadelphia, a single mom with two young sons. The recession also found itself there, and many medical service jobs had disappeared.
But the writing she’d been doing most of her adult life didn’t disappear. It became more important than ever. “I’d been writing for a long time,” Lewis says. “Twenty-something years. I’d kept a journal since I was 12. I can’t stop writing in the journal, writing poetry, putting together a novel. It’s happened over a long span of time.”
To support her children and pursue her writing, Lewis took a job as a barista — a move she says changed her life — and ended up at Barnes and Noble. Being around both books and a café made for a good mix. “It was vastly different from what I had been trained for,” she says. “At first, I didn’t think I could do the barista work, but I enjoyed it. And the more I did it, the more I fell in love with the work, with serving people, interactions with the regulars and first-time customers, and the bookstore element. It blended together in a strange kind of way I’d never realized before.”
Her writing took off. As Lewis polished the art of brewing coffee drinks, she also began attending more poetry readings and workshops. She took some time off to write exclusively, but she learned that she needed to grow as a writer before earning income as a writer.
So she headed back to her barista’s apron, but she was not disappointed. Rather, Lewis found that the rhythms of the café nourished her even more as a person and as a writer.
Dawn Lewis at work. (Susan Richardson/for NewsWorks)
“Last summer, something happened,” she says. “When I came back this time, it was with a sense of renewed energy and interest. Even though everything seemed to fall apart, what came together when I came back to being a barista was the writing — my novel, poetry.”
Lewis’ situation, working as a barista without having been able to complete college, is part of a larger national phenomenon — one that, for instance, Starbucks has taken steps to address through a program of college assistance for its café workers. Yet for Lewis, she’s happy right where she’s landed.
“[People talk to me] about the idea to find something else to do — but now it feels like there’s nothing else as far as a passion. Without a college degree, I can’t get into management or teaching positions. But now I know what I want to write, and I’m doing it. In the meantime, I love my job. I love serving people, talking to people, interacting with people.”
That sounded pretty great to me, so I asked her about what those moments were like, serving more than just coffee and milk across the counter.
“I make the drinks per the recipe, but I try to put more of myself into it,” she says. “I don’t treat someone like they’re just a customer. It’s more than that. They come in. Yes, they want a drink, but it’s a bookstore, too. I can be like, ‘Enjoy yourself.’ Especially the regulars, they open up and talk. It’s life. It’s that part I love. I may have come a bit late into it, but this is the right time for me.”
She says she doesn’t wish her path had been any different.
“I wouldn’t want to be any place else, because if I were, I might not have had the revelation that I did,” she says. “It’s almost divine, in a weird way. Something clicked. [And] it dawned on me. I realized I was ok with where I am. It has nothing to do with age or other preconceived ideas or stories I’ve heard about age. This is my journey.
“My life is not perfect, nor does it fit those success stories of single moms finding love, fortune, and fame. I simply love what I am doing now at the cafe. Today was a particularly stressful day, but I come home, tired, and somehow happy. Even though I took a year off to write, I never left the cafe in spirit. I’m glad I came back and didn’t pick yet another retail job or an office job.”