I'll be down at Greg's Place after class

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Originally published 23 November 2002 at Backwash.com

Greg glanced around the cookie-cutter apartment. It was Style #4 of the 8 used locally, and those 8 came from the 6 possible structure layouts. People were moving out to the suburb fringes, flowing away from the city centers and entering the sprawl. Back in the 70s and 80s, the ’sprawl’ was defined as the endless miles of carbon-copy single family homes. They didn’t know anything; today’s sprawl graduated to multifamily dwellings. 50 units on the land that used to only handle three or four families.

"I wish I could help you, but two roommates is enough as it is," said Matt, returning from the bathroom. "If it was still August you probably could have found someone, but most everyone is settled in now."

"I know...one-bedrooms are all full, and anything bigger is going for at least a thousand a month," Greg sighed.

"You can stay on my couch for a while, but Al doesn’t like the idea. I’ll hold him off, but I hope you find something by the end of the month, otherwise the guys will want you to chip in for rent."

Greg’s parents were moving. They had been extraordinarily tolerant of him living at home during college, understanding the expense of living on one’s own. Now, his options were to either follow them to Delaware or find his own place to live.

His parents were even gracious enough to offer him an allowance, $400 a month, so that he wouldn’t have to drop out of school. $400 could cover rent if he could find a few roommates, but those were hard to come by. Even with one roommate, Greg figured he could do OK. The one person he found couldn’t pass a credit check, the other had no discernible income, so Greg was caught between covering his own ass and finding a place to live.

From Matt’s apartment, Greg drove through the center of town to reach the college. He could follow most students’ lead and cruise the interstate loop around town, but Greg hated traffic. Swinging on to Broadway, the only slowdowns might be a garbage truck or kids playing in the street.

South Rapids, back when his parents were young, had been the gas stop on the edge of The City. Before that, it was ten miles from anywhere, the place the farmer’s went rather than heading to town. When he was young, the downtown had a flash of revitalization due to the needs of the expanding tract houses. Twenty years passed, and now shoppers head out to where South Rapids’ borders intermingle with the fellow suburbs, their crashing interaction erupting in malls and big-box stores like Target, Circuit City, and Home Depot. The downtown wasn’t run-down or crime-ridden; there just wasn’t anything there. If it weren’t for the streetlights at night, there wouldn’t be any light at all.

Scrawled paint on a storefront window caught Greg’s eye: "1,800 SQUARE FEET -- $760/MO" Greg stopped in the middle of the road to write down the phone number, but it didn’t interrupt traffic in the least. The old apartments downtown had clawfoot tubs and radiator heat, and saving $300 a month was worth putting up with cockroaches and leaky roofs. He added it up, and with his part-time job he could probably afford it all on his own. And, 1,800 feet of floorspace? It had to be three bedrooms.

A man answered the phone, "Hello?" Greg almost hung up, thinking it a wrong number, but tried his chances and asked about the property at 48 Main St. Yes, the man said, he’d be happy to show it, and he’d even be willing to negotiate on the lease.

Greg stood in the stairwell leading to the upstairs apartments, ten minutes early for the appointment. Jim, the landlord, arrived breathing heavily through his hairy nostrils. He shook Greg’s hand and unlocked the storefront.

It had been a coffee shop, Jim explained, but the Starbucks in Allendale took traffic away. All the retail properties Jim owned were sitting vacant, so he was happy to find anyone willing to pay rent on one. Greg wrote out a check for two month’s rent and a deposit, emptying his savings, and signed the lease that day. The lease itself was a photocopy of a handwritten one, presumably created by Jim himself. There was a blank for ’type of business;’ Greg filled in "student services."

With his parents’ first $400 check, Greg bought a bunch of nice furniture down at the pawn shop. He recognized it as rent-to-own leftovers, things students worked 8-hour days after class to buy, only to hawk it for a tenth of the price just to buy food. His four hundred got him a comfy couch, two armchairs, a bed, a coffee table, and some kitchen implements. Greg almost left without buying anything, unsure of how he would get everything back to his new ’apartment,’ but a $400 sale was more than enough incentive for the guy behind the counter to back his own truck up to the door and haul everything to Greg’s home.

"What’cha doing here? Opening a new coffeeshop? The last one went belly up last winter."

"No, I’m just living here...cheaper than rent."

The guy snuffled his contempt and dragged the couch through the doorway, bumping Greg’s signs. Down at Office Depot, Greg had bought one reading "CLOSED" and one shaped like a clock, indicating what time he would be back.

The store office became the bedroom, and the counter area was well suited as a kitchen. Greg didn’t own a TV, but he didn’t particularly need one. He had requested extra hours at Red Lobster to help make rent, so when he got home he was happy to look out the plate-glass window at the sunset.

The bathroom was the only problem – while he had two, men’s and women’s, there was no shower. His solution was to work out at the college every morning, showering in the locker room.

Greg emerged from the ladies’ room in his home (it had a nicer toilet) and settled in on a wingbacked chair with his textbooks. A knock on the plate glass window startled him. He smiled, recognizing the knocker, and gestured for her to join him.

"What’s all this?" Jane asked.

"I’m living here," he answered. "Have a seat!"

"Squatter, huh?" she asked. Greg shook his head no. "I was on my way to the library to study, but the couch looks like a better place to sit myself."

"Want some coffee? I just made some."

Jane helped herself to a "World’s Greatest Mom" mug from behind the counter and poured herself a cup.

Greg soon discovered which of his friends lived within walking distance of his new home. He liked the camaraderie; out in the apartment jungle, security doors and peepholes kept his friends away except for after plenty of planning. Parking was tough, reading addresses was tough, so socializing in an apartment was limited to preplanned parties. At his new place, people would just drop by. The tollbooth in a nearby parking lot was overgrown by bushes, the home to a family of surly squirrels. Distant visitors parked with impunity.

His friends took his "Be Back At" sign as gospel. If they happened to be by, they’d stop in and chat, or work on homework, or just relax. The first can of coffee acquired a "$$$" label and a slot was cut in the top for contributions. The honor system worked well, and after a few weeks Greg bought a larger coffee-maker. The dorm fridge was moved to his bedroom, to prevent his meals from disappearing. Everything else around the counter was fair game to visitors. Ten bucks here and there in the coffee tin was worth it for Greg to clean the pot, buy some snacks, and keep things clean.

Friends brought their friends, who became regulars and eventually brought their friends. Greg didn’t mind late nights, especially with socializing to do, but he still announced his bedtime with the traditional call, "you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!"

Through the winter, Greg’s place became a refuge from the snowy streets. The coffee-kitty hit $100 right before Christmas, so in the interest of the coffee-drinking friends Greg invested that money in a used 100-cup coffee maker. One day, a couple canisters of Coffee-Mate flavored creamer appeared. The coffee-cup collection grew as well. While everyone knew that there’s no guarantee of getting the same cup each time, various personalities still embedded their personal flag, conquering a tiny part of Greg’s home by donating their favorite mug.

Another phrase was added to the repertoire. One spring afternoon, six people besides Greg were resting and chatting. Greg checked with the people he knew, and then checked which people they knew. Two of the people were strangers.

"Can I help you?"

"Oh," they responded with surprise, "I didn’t realize you were in charge here. Where’s the menu?"

Dumbfounded looks were exchanged between the regulars, and laughter erupted. Greg’s response was eventually painted on the wall, in lieu of the absent menu-chalkboard: "If it’s there, you can have it, but you gotta get it yourself." The two strangers eventually became regulars, famous for their first attendance of Greg’s home.

Summer came, school ended, and the apartments upstairs from Greg’s place emptied. Greg moved to day shifts, so he was home more. He didn’t have homework, so every day was a little party. One corner became a stage, and neighborhood bands performed nightly for tips. The coffee-kitty was making fifty bucks a day, which Greg put into additional furniture and some endtables. The rest went into savings, and Greg cut his hours back at Red Lobster.

School returned, and Greg entered his senior year. Traffic dropped off, but the regulars still kept Greg plenty of company.

Greg sat on the couch, staring out the window at the falling leaves. Across the street, the sidewalk was coated in red, brown and gold. His sidewalk was clear, swept clean by the tromping feet of Greg’s friends. Reflected in the plate-glass windows of the opposing empty shops, he could see the mural painted over the summer: Above the door, twelve feet wide and three feet tall, were the stylized letters forming "GREG’S PLACE". It was done in four hours, while Greg was at work, by Greg’s art-student friend Dan and whoever else happened to be there.

Frank flopped down on the couch beside Greg, notebook in hand. "Hey, can I ask you some questions? I’m working on my thesis," Frank asked.

Greg shrugged, discarding the textbook that he hadn’t been reading.

"How long as this been here?"

"Almost a year."

"When did things start to pick up?"

"Around last Thanksgiving, during vacation."

"Why do think people come back?"

Greg paused; at first, it was because he was living there, but when the degrees of separation grew between him and his visitors, he wasn’t quite sure.

"I think it’s because this is someplace they can go and just BE, without having to buy anything or go out of their way. Here they can get together with friends without having to plan so hard."

"Not like at Starbucks or anything."

"Not at all. The chain stores try to move you in and out, get the product sold. I’m not about that here. This is just a place to go, hang out."

"If Greg’s Place isn’t about selling product in volume, how does it sustain profitability in slow times?"

Greg squirreled his nose up, confused by the words in the question. "What are...what is your thesis on, anyway?"

"It’s for my MBA. I’m writing about what keeps stores like this open when the chain retailers move in. Your shop here is an island in a dead sea, the only place with recurring customers. I just don’t get it...I visited with the owner of the coffeeshop that was here before, back when I started grad school. He complained at how expensive it was to compete with the products that Starbucks can buy in bulk, he complained about advertising costs, he complained about how big his loans on the equipment and furniture were, and he went out of business when summer came and students moved home. Most small shops have a high-profit niche they fill, but you’ve just got cheap, black coffee. Heck, if someone didn’t want to pay for it, you don’t even enforce anything."

A thoughtful look crossed Greg’s eyes. "And you haven’t figured it out yet? Why the old coffee shop failed, but my place stays open?"

Frank shook his head. "I think it’s something financial...would you mind if I saw your balance sheets? When’s your fiscal year up?"

Greg laughed. "I doubt it’s that, but when you get something, let me know."