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A History of a Campus Coffee Shop

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01/26/2012

A History of a Campus Coffee Shop photo_th

Yesterday, for whatever reason, my order at Argo Tea was taking longer than expected. "No worries," I said to the girl behind the counter. "I was a coffee shop wench for four years. I understand."

"Coffee shop wench" wasn't my official title, but I do have a pretty outsized fondness for the time I spent behind the counter at Ex Libris, the subterranean pit stop in the basement of the Regenstein Library, which I used to call "the tomb with coolers." Ex Libris (the eX, more properly) has been on my mind lately. An article recently crossed my path showing off the new location: above ground, and full of natural light. Now the employees are "student baristas."

I'm torn between envy and old-timer rage, a position shared by my fellow alums—as it should be. My "coffee shop wenching" was the one constant throughout my four years of college, more so than friendships, coursework, extracurriculars, life plans and living situations. When I started, I was carting my music with me in a huge CD folder; Ex Libris was the first place I saw iPods in wide use. It was also the first place I saw people using Facebook. When I think about it, a lot happened in the world while I was descending those stairs for twenty hours or so per week.

I found out there were still openings for coveted student-run coffee shop jobs the second week of my first quarter at school, Fall 2002. I had never had a job before, but I desperately wanted to not rely on my parents for disposable income. I came to my interview dressed like I was up for an office job; Sue, the general manager at the time, was six feet tall with heavy eye makeup, tons of silver jewelry and long black hair. She kind of terrified me, but I got the job; later, we bonded over our love of Moby-dick and all things Melville. Turns out I was well suited to the work. I liked interacting with people, and once I got comfortable with things like stocking shelves and making coffee, a few broken carafes aside, I was happy there.

It was a good place to be a misfit: we played that up—why else would we spend so many of our extracurricular hours in a lightless sub-basement of a massive concrete Brutalist library? I used to blast Bjork, Tibetan monks and ear-shattering Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tracks on our three-foot speakers in protest of the constant rotation of Bon Jovi, System of a Down and Guns'n'Roses. (Music was a huge deal; I learned more about music and musical discoveries there than just about anywhere else.) I also once accidentally "berated" Sara Tanaka (Margaret Yang from Rushmore) for taking the wrong size coffee cup. (I didn't know who she was, and she paid for a medium and took a large or something—I just pointed out the mediums, and after she'd left, Rebecca asked me why I chased her away. "Now she'll never come back!") We often cast each other in movies or TV shows on the big chalkboard next to the counter; once I came in to find that in our Godfather lineup, I was Luca Brasi, he who wishes for masculine children and sleeps with the fishes.

Ex Libris taught me a lot about human nature: about people spilling whole gallons of milk and walking away hoping no one would notice; about customers constantly asking if we had milk or honey or sugar or spoons or microwaves, despite the huge signs and humming coolers indicating just that; about students who hadn't seen sunlight in two days emerging from the A-Level to demand coffee; about handling outside vendors with their own ideas about food delivery. There were the creepy customers, who braved keeping lines behind them to chat us up whenever and for however long they could, and there were awesome customers, who bantered with me for four years despite my never learning their names. And there were my coworkers, who embraced the make-it-yourself ethic in everything from gaming centers to get-togethers, to say the least.

As much as I'm cherry-picking the good parts, part of me is sad that no one else will have that experience. The new Ex Libris is going to be its own creature, which it should be, and of course, there are other student-run coffee shops on campus with a similar ethos to ours (though I'm obligated to dispute that they'll ever be a sufficient facsimile). Being an alumna hardly dictates that my way is the best way or that my experience is somehow no longer valid.

And let's be fair: for all that we did with that fluorescent-lit, cooler-humming, milk-spilled, cramped, decorated-by-collage, pumping-with-strange-music space—and what we did was mighty—I can't put down wanting access to sunlight.

Best of luck to the new iteration, Ex Libris. Have fun becoming what you'll be next.

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