It’s grey slush and grit outside, caged in by a drab sky: the winter drags, even on this April day.
But open the door and step inside: it’s warm. Thick hot brews and walnut banana breads flavour the air, indistinct and cozy chatter gives it texture, small hanging lamps and the big front window give it light.
The Elm Café is more than the sum of its (perfectly awesome) parts: it is a tiny hub of activity and community on the otherwise nondescript corner of Montreal and Charles St. If I'm having a dramatic day, I might liken it to the floodplains of the Nile amidst Egyptian desert. When humanity and vibrancy is what you seek, you can always find it at the Elm, lodged deep in a diverse community of hard-working people trying to pursue dreams or make ends meet, or both, in the Inner Harbour, who don’t often have the time to wish for things like this, but who very much yearn for them anyway.
The café is owned by Logan and her husband Matt, a stone mason. Logan runs the Elm with a smile and (sometimes) a baby in tow. Like most dreams that ‘come true’, this one required drive, dedication, sweat, and (maybe) some tears. Above all, it required a committed optimism. The kind of outlook on life that sees the best in places and people, and creates opportunities. The kind that remains humble in the face of adversity.
The Elm had its windows smashed four times last year, and despite the frustration this must have caused, Logan is undeterred. Thanks in part to a customer-initiated GoFundMe campaign, they purchased storefront shutters to protect the windows after closing hours. Life goes on: there are people to greet, beverages to serve, delicious sandwiches and soups to create.
I easily spend two hours there, watching. It is complete comfort the patrons find inside. Many are here when I arrive and are still here when I leave. This is their hangout spot, the place where they will finish the next draft of their thesis, or chat about an artistic collaboration over hot tea, or escape the cold with other mothers and their children, or sip a frothy latte and lose themselves in thought.
The Cafe walls display the work of local artists. It gives emerging artists a chance to be seen and draws art-lovers to the cafe. The last Thursday of each month features a music night (hosted by Gary Rasberry) and the first Tuesday each month is poetry open mic (hosted by Bruce Kauffman). These are no accidents - bringing arts to the cafe is a crucial component of Logan's vision.
Logan’s decade of experience in the hospitality industry and her prior training in behavioural psychology blend with her warm personality to create the perfect welcoming face to her business. Everyone knows her, everyone stops to chat. While I admire eight-month old baby Juno in her arms, a middle-aged man mutters that this café is too family friendly for his taste. Logan gives him an earnest smile, genuinely sorry that he hasn't found the energy of this place positively contagious. He strides out the door, his leaf cappuccino untouched on the counter. I guess you can’t win everyone over. But no matter. Thousands of people have already been won over, rightfully, and I count myself among them.
Toward the back, near the small alcove where mothers with young children often sit, waits Logan's mother. She brings Juno to the cafe, or takes her back home for naps. She takes her from Logan when the cafe gets very busy. A triumphant multi-generational effort.
That Logan brings her baby to the café - that her daughter is growing up with a keen sense of her parents’ business and of her integral place within it - should be celebrated. It is the kind of every-day example of empowering mothers and female entrepreneurs that I’ve been mentally cataloguing since I became a mother, maybe even before that. No, you do not need to bring your baby to work, but I’ve always believed that you should have the choice to do it, where possible. That you should be able to productively combine parenthood with your prior identity as a helpful, efficacious member of your community, if you choose.
After the lunch rush, I visit Logan and Juno at home, and watch them play, pet their lovable dog Floyd. We talk of finding balance in life, and staying true to ourselves. I leave, still rambling... something about my double chin, while Logan humours me and smiles. I recognize in her face a look that betrays blissful exhaustion, contentedness despite the bustle, and ultimately - a groundedness in the happy realities of the life she and her husband have created.
I encourage everyone to visit the café and support it by purchasing at least a coffee. While you are there, appreciate for a moment how seamlessly things run, how friendly their staff is. Logan and Matt’s café isn’t great because of chance. It’s great because - like any other dream realized and craft made to look easy-peasy - the people behind it put in a hell of a lot of hard work, passion, and hustle, and because they exhibit a limitless optimism about the future of their city that is good not only for Kingston but good for the world.