Downtown durham was just waking up when Gwen Mathews unlocked the dead bolt on the front door of the Blue Coffee Cafe. She turned on the lights. This was her restaurant now, the former owners having closed it on the previous Friday.
After 22 years of working for someone else, of traveling for her job with a phone company, Mathews would be her own boss, would settle down at the corner of Corcoran and West Parrish streets, on Black Wall Street where generations of African-Americans before her had established insurance companies, startups and banks.
Over the next hour, she prepared for her first day. She tried to remember everything she had learned about making lattes in a crash course she had taken the week before.
And at 8 o’clock on this crisp Monday morning of Oct. 3, 2005, the first customers arrived.
On a recent crisp November afternoon, Mathews sat at a table near the counter, removed her hair net and reflected on the past nine years as the anchor of this corner. Before the street improvements and the construction cranes, before the tech startups and the tapas bars, Mathews’ restaurant pioneered the downtown revival. Before the $12 cocktails, there was the $5 breakfast at Blue Coffee.
“This space had the character I was looking for,” she says. “I’m in a place that has history behind it. We’re excited about the revitalization of downtown Durham, and we’ve been waiting for people to catch up with us.”
It’s ironic that Blue Coffee is being displaced by the very forces it nurtured. Austin Lawrence Partners, the new owner of the former Jack Tar Motel, is renovating the building into a boutique hotel with a rooftop bar, street-level retail stores and restaurants. Although Greg Hills, co-founder of Austin Lawrence Partners, has emphasized he wants his developments to retain the character of Durham, his vision for the space did not align with Mathews’, she said.
“This is a community space,” she said. People here are relaxed.”
So in mid-December, Blue Coffee Cafe will uproot from its home with the big, wide windows and reopen in mid-January at 107 N. Church St., near Main.
It’s also ironic that the city and county awarded Austin Lawrence Partners $7.9 million in tax breaks for its City Center Project, 26-story tower at Corcoran and Main streets and the renovation of several buildings in that area, but a city grant program to help small businesses like Blue Coffee is out of money.
Mathews may have been eligible for a Retail and Professional Services Grant, but according to the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, no funds are available through that program. City Council appropriates money for it.
So Blue Coffee has launched a $35,000 Kickstarter campaign, which ends Nov. 24, to renovate the new space, including construction of a kitchen and the renovation of the floors and ceiling.
“My vision is to continue to do what’s worked for nine years,” Mathews says.
To watch life unfold from a seat by the café’s south- and west-facing windows is to watch a movie with a different ending each day. There have been parades, arts festivals, the installation of the Major the Bull sculpture, vigils and street protests.
And there was Derek Walker. He was a Blue Coffee regular.
On Sept. 17, 2013, Walker, distraught over a child custody issue, brandished a gun in CCB Plaza. After an hour, police on the scene said, Walker pointed the weapon toward them. An officer fatally shot him.
“I get chills thinking about it,” Mathews says. “We had customers in here. We locked the door and moved people away from the windows. For a while, people looked at the plaza differently. We were concerned about our downtown neighborhood.”
At about 9:30 on a recent Monday morning, the line at the counter extended into the middle of the room: Construction workers in their fluorescent green safety vests and white hard hats, on a break from rehabbing the 21c Museum Hotel across the street; YMCA employees, a man in a suit, a guy with dreadlocks.
Blue Coffee has also been a regular hangout for politicians, such as State Rep. Larry Hall, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, county commissioners, city council members, judgesand a future president.
May 5, 2008, “was just a regular day and I was heading home,” Mathews recalled. “And I got a call on my cell phone. ‘We are the Secret Service.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah right.’”
The agents finally convinced her that yes, really, 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama was headed for her restaurant. “I made a U-turn in the middle of the street.”
Shortly after she arrived at her cafe, the Secret Service blocked off the streets and Obama came inside, while people plastered themselves against the windows.
Obama chatted with Mathews for about 10 minutes, then spent an hour in the cafe. He sat down at a table and ate a piece of plain pound cake. Mathews still has the fork and plate with the crumbs on it.
Claudia Fulshaw was among the first customers to visit on that October morning in 2005. A graphic artist who has worked downtown for 18 years, Fulshaw was excited that a coffees shop would remain in the center of the city.
“There wasn’t much downtown at all then,” Fulshaw said. “They kept it simple. Places like this are the soul of downtown.”
The café was packed that day, until closing time, when Mathews cleaned the coffee pots, counted the cash drawer and swept and mopped the floor. That’s likely how Mathews and her three employees will end their shift on the final day of Blue Coffee’s Parrish Street era.
On Church Street, Mathews will pioneer eastern downtown, an area staked out, so far, only by Old Havana Sandwich Shop. With the rest of downtown built outor soon to beeast is the final frontier of Durham’s downtown renaissance.
The Church Street space has a wide window that faces the sunrise. Each morning, the sun paints the room with light.
“It will be different scenery on Church,” Mathews says, watching passersby on Parrish Street through the window near the counter. “But we’re going to do great in the new place.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Here comes a regular.”