Coffee shop builds community in Cincy neighborhood

JOHN FAHERTY The Cincinnati Enquirer Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Just before the sun rose, when the city was beginning to stir and the traffic on Madison Road in Cincinnati was starting to roll heavy, Sandy Vierling heard the knock on the door.

She knew it would be Dwayne, and she knew he needed coffee and that he couldn't wait for her to open, so she went to the front door of the Cafe DeSales in East Walnut Hills neighborhood and let him in.

In January, the previous owner of the cafe walked away and Vierling, who had been the manager, decided to buy what was suddenly a stripped-down coffee shop. She knew she needed help, and customers responded.

Ed bought her a coffee maker. Gerald showed up one morning with a refrigerator. Chris offered financial support. "I know their name and their story, and I know what they drink," Vierling said. "But I don't know their last names. Ed is my customer, a really nice guy, and he drinks a dirty chai."

And now Cafe DeSales is the community's "living room."

Cafe DeSales sits at the corner of Woodburn Avenue and Madison Road under the looming bell tower of St. Francis De Sales church.

Almost as soon as Vierling, 62 and a retired school teacher, started working at the cafe two years ago, she loved it. "Within a week, it was my passion."

She liked the people and the pace and notion that customers would come to her job to find some peace, or the joy of a good cup of coffee.

And then she and her husband suffered a cataclysmic loss. Their son Brian, one of their six children, died in a car accident. Brian Vierling was 36 years old, a husband, and the father of baby girl.

"It was devastating. Maybe that's why this place became so important to me," Vierling said. "It kept me busy and gave me a sense of purpose."

During this time, Vierling learned her customers' names and their drinks. She started putting a dog bowl filled with water out in front. She would let homeless men and woman come in and sit with some dignity for a while. Her customers never seemed to notice, or maybe they just approved.

She felt like the previous owner had other dreams and maybe never really loved the place as she did.

She thought his bills were mounting but still she was shocked, she said, to arrive one day in late December and find her coffee shop closed.

"I knew it could happen, but still it was a shock," Vierling said.

"It took me a minute to decide I wanted to buy it."

Right away she covered the glass windows and said that the place was closed but just temporarily, and only for remodeling. But the customers could see past the paper on the windows and knew it was more than that. So they started leaving notes.

"Sandy, what can we do?"

"Sandy, do you need some help?"

"Sandy, tell me you are going to reopen."

When the customers saw her inside working, they knocked on the door and helped.

Some painted.

Some found tables and chairs.

Some cleaned walls.

"I will never forget what this community did for me," Vierling said.

Ray Oldenburg is not surprised at all when a neighborhood rallies around a place like Cafe DeSales.

Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, wrote a seminal book on the importance of informal gathering places and what they can mean to a community.

Oldenburg wrote that "third places" -- home is first, work is second -- are where people meet and talk, where they make friends and plans.

And with the increasing use of the Internet as a virtual gathering hall, the corner cafe is more important than ever.

"On the Internet, people search out people who think just like they do," Oldenburg, a retired professor, said from his home in Florida. "People need real connectedness. And every once in a while, they need to hear somebody say: 'You know what? You are as crazy as hell.'"

Oldenburg points to the old neighborhood tavern as the place where this usually happened. He said research indicates 80 percent of traditional tavern drinkers lived within two blocks of the place. But people stopped going, or started driving to a place farther away.

A local coffee shop, like Cafe DeSales, is where the conversation can start again.

"All of a sudden, people know each other," Oldenburg said. "They learn what is important to each other and they trust each other and they help each other."

Ed Pfetzing comes to Cafe DeSales every morning for his coffee and a little breakfast. But what he is really there for is the community. He is the vice president of the East Walnut Hills Assembly, and this is where people find him.

"It's what I call the unplanned meeting. It's where communities happen and every neighborhood needs one," Pfetzing said, sitting with his wife, Carol. She joins him most mornings. "It's the living room of our community."

And Vierling began to find some joy after the loss of her son. Her grief is like a brick around her neck, she said, that gets little bit smaller here and there. Someday, she said, she hopes it is like a polished stone.

She comes and opens her coffee shop seven mornings a week. Then she leaves and comes back through the day.

Cafe DeSales is making a little money now, Vierling says. Monday morning was rainy, but traffic was steady. Business people, then high school students, then people who have a little more time on their hands.

At lunch, there is a rush and then after school, the students come back. Sometimes, Vierling sits with a customer. Every table, every chair, she says, has a story.

"We opened with eight chairs and a couple of tables. When we made a little money, we bought a new chair. Somebody would bring in a table top, somebody else would bring in a base. It works."

Then she turned and looked around her coffee shop. All the customers were busy talking.


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,