Between the Cup and the Lip

By Jason Leach
Published July 08, 2005

Way back in our second issue I wrote a piece about the local café scene and the places that I consider to be great hangouts.

You may recall that I included the Westdale Second Cup on my list despite the fact that it is a chain store and very rarely do chain stores offer anything remotely close to cool or unique.

But the Westdale location of the Second Cup has always been just that - cool, comfortable and laid back.

Mac professors would sit next to street musicians with anti-establishment slogans on their t-shirts and both seemed to fit in just fine; yuppie couples would sit next to punk rockers and so on.

Recently the Second Cup has closed off this location as they renovate the store. It is poised to open next week and tonight I took a sneak peak through a hole in the papered window.

Now, let me say there were no lights on inside and the hole I was looking through was about 1 foot wide. All will be revealed next week, but I have a feeling that this once unique, artsy café has just been turned into another cookie cutter corporate chain store.

I could see the modern hardwoods floors had been restained an ultramodern shiny dark brown. The walls are beige and the counter lights are typically modern. I hope when the place actually opens for business and I see it in full light that the local art works will still adorn the walls along with unique music and the community bulletin board in the back.

Recently the Staircase Café closed its doors. It too was a place for everyone. Suit and tie or shorts and a beater. All were welcome. All felt comfortable in the cool vibe that was the Staircase. If my suspicions about the Second Cup are correct we will have lost two unique and artsy cafes in less than a month.

This had better not signal the start of a new trend in Hamilton. Our unique culture and city vibe may be at risk of becoming a mini-version of Toronto will a billion Second Cup and GAP stores.

It could simply be a blip in the local development scene. Rumours persist that a group is poised to take over the Staircase and we've recently heard the announcements about the Downtown Cultural Centre being developed in the old Salvation Army church on Rebecca Street.

Let's hope Hamilton continues to redevelop in a 'Hamilton way'. Those who like staid, corporate, and bland can easily enjoy life in our surrounding strip malls and suburbs. Let's not ruin the heart of the city any more than we already have by trying to suburbanize the downtown or its surrounding urban neighbourhoods. Jackson Square didn't work in the 70s and it won't work today.

In the meantime I may find myself needing to remove the Westdale Second Cup from my list of hotspots, depending on what is revealed in the next week or so when it re-opens. According the young lady behind the counter, I'm not the only one. She said everyone has been saying the same thing - "please, don't give us a bland corporate store in place of our unique University neighbourhood café that we've come to love".

We'll find out soon enough.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2005 at 05:40:20

While unfortunate, this isn't surprising. I was always surprised Second Cup in Westdale was allowed to deviate from the corporate norm in the first place.

Corporations by definition aim to reduce variation across their operations. Their goal is to provide a consistent, predictable experience for customers regardless of location, so a hamburger in Hamilton looks and tastes the same as a hamburger in Albuquerque.

It's a unclear whether and to what extent this is shaped by customer demand for predictability or customer expectation has been shaped by corporate imperatives. Standardization makes it cheaper and easier for the corporation to run stores across a large geographic area; at the same time, customers clearly don't like to be surprised and often react negatively to change.

One thing is clear: it results in a soul-deadening blandness and sameness in our built environments - one strip plaza bookended with 7-11s and Taco Bells looks pretty much like any other. It also results in a food industry skewed to unhealthy, heavily processed stuff that can travel the continent in giant supply chains without spoiling.

To the extent that economies are ultimately governed by ecological principles (and the overwhelming evidence is that they are), this stamping out of complexity, diversity, and local adaptation, not to mention the massive inputs of non-renewable energy required to maintain continent-spanning supply chains, is bad news for our long-term economic prospects.

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