Do You Know the Coffee Man?
At 5:55 a.m. on a dark, deserted street tucked between College and Beaver avenues, a car silently pulls into an empty parking spot. A man emerges a few seconds later, wearing a three-day-old five o’clock shadow and holding a tobacco pipe comfortably between his lips as if it’s an extra appendage. He walks quickly toward the coffee shop across the street, eager to get out of the chilly winter air. Fiddling with his keys for a moment until the lock clicks, he enters the room and heads directly into the back, hanging his hunter-green winter coat on a peg and pulling off his leather gloves, throwing them haphazardly on the counter next to him.
Looking around, William Christopher Clarke, the owner of The Cheese Shoppe and W.C. Clarke’s Coffee located on Calder Way, takes a breath while he figures out what needs to be done before his usual morning crowd arrives.
“People have this idea that if it’s local, it can’t be any good,” says Bill, as he tinkers around the shop, measuring out quarter-pounds of coffee in small brown bags and pouring it into the commercial-sized coffee makers in the back. With each pour, Bill adds another flavor to the air: nutty aromas accented with hints of chocolate, hazelnut, or vanilla. Despite being the only specialty coffee and cheese shops in State College, Bill dares to compete with consumer giants like Starbucks and Wegmans. But don’t let his opinion of other people fool you – Bill has a loyal following that includes University students and employees and Centre County residents, and even some that demand his coffee all the way from Colorado.
A few minutes later, after several coffee carafes have been filled and left in the front, a bell jingles in the distance, announcing the arrival of the first customer of the day.
“Good morning Nick!” Bill calls out to the shadow making its way to the back room, readying the coffee filters.
Twenty-eight year old State College Fire Chief Nicolas Kuchmay walks in a moment later, coffee in hand despite only arriving to the shop seconds before.
“Did you catch the Eagles game that was on last night?” asks Nick, with a tone that suggests he’s known Bill for years.
They launch into a discussion about sports, Nick leaning casually against a table as Bill reaches for the tin in his pocket, filling his pipe with tobacco and lighting it. While they’re talking, two more men enter the store and Bill calls out a hello, offering them a hug and a kiss on the cheek. The two men return the gesture and begin their daily duties, Mike striding confidently into the walk-in refrigerator and grabbing the milk to set up in a carafe, Todd grabbing the spoons for mixing sugar and dropping them into a mug in front, the metal clattering loudly as they fall neatly into place.
“I’ve been full time for six or seven years,” says Michael Cummins, 50, of State College, with a smile and a slight twinkle in his eye despite the darkness in the back room.
However, though the men devote each morning to help Bill ready the shop for the daily hustle and bustle, neither Michael nor the other men are on the payroll. Throughout the years, the men have become family to Bill, and helping him open the shop every day has become second nature. Those customers new to the shop may be surprised at the group that gathers there each morning, and similar to “The Breakfast Club,” they each play a part: the doctor, the lawyer, the policeman, the churchgoer.
“No matter what you have a question about, you can find it here. Landscaper or pumper, professionals of every kind,” says Nick. Kind of like the yellow pages then, right?
But like brothers and sisters, they love to tease.
“I’m 21, single, and with no kids,” jokes one man to the others, who declined to give his name for fear of his wife’s wrath.
“You are so full of shit,” calls Bill from behind the counter.
“I look good for 50. Pretty good, eh?” offers Michael, standing next to Bill.
“It’s a dark room,” answers spoon organizer Todd Scholton, 42, a State College police officer.
It seems like an easy life to Bill, but it wasn’t always the case. He’s owned The Cheese Shoppe since 1976, but was forced to expand into another industry when the US Government declared that cholesterol was bad, causing his business to plummet.
“That basically put a nail in my coffin,” said Bill, referring to the health warning. Add in a few years of construction outside of his shop that slowed foot traffic and an owner who doubled Bill rent payments, and Bill was left with very few options.
“Sometimes, I’d shut the door, put the cheese away, and come back here and cry,” he said, looking down at his hands folded in his lap. He reaches for his tin again, refills his pipe, lights it and takes a puff before he continues.
“I didn’t know what to do.”
Bill says his wife suggested he sell the shop, but with the stubbornness of a petulant 2-year-old, he pushed on, refusing to be a failure. He considered a bread or wine shop, but decided it wasn’t for him. However, unlike other businesses doomed to fail that borrow money from banks, Bill found hope in his loyal customers who lent him money to get through the tough times. With the borrowed cash flow, Bill elected to buy a coffee bean roaster, making him one of the first in-store roasters on the east coast.
“When my accountant walked in that first day the roaster arrived, he looked at me and said ‘Big mistake,’” said Bill.
“But sometimes, it takes a long time. More people began to drink my coffee,” he said.
“And if you drink two or more cups, I know I’ve got you. I know it, because I’ve got good coffee,” he added.
And boy does he have good coffee.
June Miller, an organist for the Grace Lutheran Church and a retired Penn State School of Music instructor, says she probably wouldn’t drink coffee if it wasn’t for Bill’s.
“It’s not a matter of the best coffee in town; it’s a matter of the only coffee in town,” says June, lifting her cup of Joe in the air as if toasting the owner.
By 7 a.m., there are more than a dozen people in the coffee shop, weaving back and forth around the heavy, canvas coffee bean bags on the floor as they look for carafes that need fresh coffee, spoons that need to be cleaned, and sugar caddies that needed to be refilled.
It’s amusing to watch a customer who isn’t familiar with the system walk in every so often and cast an uncomfortable glance at the counter where dozens of coins lay scattered amongst crumpled $1 and $5 bills. Unsure what to do, he looks at The Breakfast Club with pleading eyes, begging for an answer. After a few exchanged winks and smiles, his actual paid employee who arrived a few minutes before takes pity on the newcomer and explains to simply drop his money on the counter and make his own change before grabbing a steaming cup from the carafes.
In a world spoiled by a growing sense of dishonesty, it’s refreshing to meet Bill and see that he may just be one of the last remaining old-school gentlemen left. He has no clock-in, clock out machine for his employees, he never requested money from another coffee shop that went out of business years ago and owed him money for supplying beans, and ensures his customers are never uncomfortable. When he accidentally runs into his patrons at a supermarket, he makes sure they don’t see him in case they are buying coffee.
“I didn’t want them to feel bad about not buying my coffee,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling sheepishly.
“Rather than embarrass them, I just don’t go over to their carts.”
Sadly, sometimes his trusting nature can get him intro trouble. A few years ago, he caught one of his employees stealing money from the shop and approached her about it.
“She had convinced me it was this one guy,” said Bill, who later caught her red-handed by using a camera.
“I didn’t want to look when I realized who it was,” he said, recalling the time he reviewed the video.
“I was more distraught and hurt than angry,” he added, looking defeated despite his usually confident
manner. Years later, he received an apology letter from the woman.
Throughout the morning, new people stroll in and out of the jingling door, but a few regulars remain for several hours, leaving one wondering if any of them actually have jobs to go to.
Aaron Ciambotti, 30, of Port Matilda and a university police officer, is one of the few who journeys down in the morning but doesn’t have anywhere to go…at least until nightfall, when his shift starts. He brings his best friend to tag along, one that stands a little over two feet tall, drools a little, and loves to jump on people he doesn’t know. While Aaron readies his coffee, Bill drops to his knees to play with Aaron’s friend, an eight-month-old bullmastiff puppy named Bosco. It was only a little over a year Aaron wasn’t allowed to drink coffee due to stomach issues; Bill, however, introduced him to some new flavors that weren’t too strong for his stomach.
“It was a perfect outlet for me to socialize him, bring him down here and get coffee,” says Aaron.
“But it’s worked, because he’s great around people now,” he added, glancing at Bill in the front of the store as he roasts beans in what looks like an old-fashioned steam engine. Bill slowly opens a latch and out spills the beans, enveloping the customers inside in a cloud of smoke and beckoning those walking outside to come in.
Bosco then pulls at his leash, eager to play with one of the newest customers to join the party – Elan Torretti, 18-months-old, and her mother, Rebecca. Bill, finished with the beans, comes over to play as well, talking in a Donald Duck voice and causing Elan to smile.
Bill picks himself off from the floor a few minutes later and walk into the back room to check on something. Hanging over his head is a sign: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and experiencing different results.”
One could argue that Bill is, in fact, insane. Those who know him have enough stories about his shenanigans to fill a novel, and then a sequel. Those who don’t know him will never forget him. But then again, insanity isn’t such a bad thing, because he does experience different results. Some people have met their spouses at The Cheese Shoppe; others have simply received a number for a good plumber. Some have found jobs, others have found a place to kill time between jobs. But make no mistake – every person who walks out of The Cheese Shoppe goes with a smile, an aromatic cup of coffee, and a new friend named Bill.