My first job was during Christmas vacation, when I was eighteen years old. I spent my two weeks of vacation, helping out at The Mercantile, on Pendleton Square. The Earls, who own it, had known my family since before my grandpa met my grandma, so you could see we’ve known each other forever. When I was in my teens, the shop was more oriented towards gifts and figurines, though they still had tons of rubber stamps and craft items. In recent years, the crafts and art classes have mostly taken over, as all the Earls’ daughters are very talented in that area.
I have such memories of The Mercantile, from childhood on up. I still have a stuffed dragon puppet that I’m pretty sure I saved up $50 to buy, which was a huge amount of money, when I was little. I would come in and breathe in the smell of coffee, look at all the pretty figurines (yes, this is the shop where I bought most of my Boyds Bears), debate what kinds of magnificent things I could make with rubber stamps and emboss, and then finish up by drooling over the candy, which was displayed in glass jars.
Over the years, I still love to go in there and get Swedish fish, Sour Patch kids, and semi-sweet chocolate nonpareils, which is the perfect combination of chocolate, sweet, and sour candy. I would talk to Mr. and Mrs. Earl, catch up with Cindy and Terri, and look at all the Christmas card samples, wishing I could make such magic with MY rubber stamps. Strangely enough, in recent years, I’m the one in my family that always drops into The Mercantile, even when I was only visiting from Pennsylvania, once a year. I’d check and see how the family was doing, and fill them in on what’s what in the Funk/Dinger clan. Mr. Earl is the one that knew my Grandpa before he married my Grandma, so you could say he was a grandfatherly figure in my life, too.
But both then and now, The Mercantile has always sold coffee, especially flavored coffee. When you walk into the store, the bell jingles, and you’ll immediately see the flavor of the day, written onto the chalkboard, and there’s a container of it to sample, with cream and sugar, while you admire the rows of flavored stick candy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I was eighteen, I didn’t drink coffee.
My dad and my grandpa (my mom’s dad) both drank tons of coffee every day, and the caffeine never bothered them. Strangely enough, the only person in my family who is affected by caffeine is my mom, but she can’t stand coffee. We love the smell, though, so I’d tried it, but couldn’t stand the taste.
And then, I went to work at The Mercantile. I would mainly be helping to dust and straighten, wrap presents, and other odd jobs. I was their go-fer for the Christmas rush, if you will, but I was delighted, and hoped they’d hire me for longer than the holidays. But it was there that one of the Earls’ sons-in-law introduced me to drinking coffee. I had told him I didn’t like the stuff, but he assured me I just wasn’t putting enough sugar in it. So, he loaded down my first cup of coffee, and I was in it for the long run.
I can’t say that my mom was thrilled, but my dad and grandpa gradually began to offer me a cup, whenever they were brewing a pot. And at the time, I didn’t drink a whole lot of it. As I didn’t go to college, and caffeine didn’t keep me awake, there was no necessity for drinking it all night, in order to study for exams.
Over the years, I began to discover coffee shops, though. Sure, I’d been into Starbucks, but Clemson didn’t have one, so I had to figure out what I’d drink at other coffee places. I don’t go in there for plain coffee, because then I have to add tons of sugar (or Splenda, as I do now). Instead, I finally discovered that I loved lattes and mochas. And yes, I eventually found Starbucks. Probably because they’re often located in either Target or Barnes & Noble, two of my favorite places to shop.
During my years in PA, I found how much I loved the holiday flavors at Starbucks. The Eggnog Latte, Gingerbread Latte, Pumpkin Spice Latte (this one stays on the menu from before Halloween until New Year’s), and Caramel Brulée Latte… oh, I live for those flavors to arrive. Ok, I’m not addicted to the Pumpkin Spice, like some people, and the Caramel Brulée is alright. The Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate is kinda cool, but pretty rich. I need the coffee flavor to tame things down. And no, I never touch the Peppermint stuff, because I hate mint.
Speaking of Starbucks, I’m trying to remember how many of them we counted, the last time we were in New York City. Somewhere between twenty to thirty of them? I’m pretty sure they were on every other block, and I think we stopped at several of them.
Now, I know they’re awful for you (the lattes and mochas), when it comes to calories, but I never got tired of them. For some reason, the town of Chambersburg had TWO Starbucks, so if I wasn’t in the mood for a trip to Target, I could stop at the stand-alone coffee shop. But moving home to SC was a bit of a jolt, because the local Target smelled like popcorn, instead of coffee. That is SO wrong.
Also, during my years up north, I enjoyed using my grandpa’s old one-cup-at-a-time coffee maker, so I would buy all sorts of sample packages of flavored coffee, at Walmart and other grocery stores, to try them all out. Hazelnut, several kinds of chocolate, and my most recent favorite, almond amaretto. I kept big bags of my favorite coffees, and since I had my own house, I spread them out on the counter, so I could take my pick, whenever I wanted a cuppa. Come to think of it, I was on the strict Atkin’s Diet, at the time, so my coffee was my dessert.
I still remember one time, though, when my cousins came to visit, and Eddie took one look at all my flavors, and requested the “least girly” for his mug of coffee. I think I gave him French Vanilla, which, as I recall, tasted like vanilla ice cream. After finishing his cuppa, he admitted that, girly or not, he wanted another. That memory still makes me smile.
By the time I was back in South Carolina, I was finding it harder to stay out of Starbucks, or whichever coffee shop happened to be nearest. Of course, for the time I was job-hunting, I didn’t have anything to distract me from getting my next latte. I started to behave a little better, after I got a part-time job.
But now, I’m in a country where there are no Starbucks, as far as I can tell (ok, maybe there are a few in the big cities, but I’m in the boonies). And though this house has a coffee maker, we rarely use it. Aussies seem to tend towards instant coffee (yes, Americans prefer the real thing), as they sell tons of it in the store, but they only have one or two flavored coffee options (when Americans have a kajillion options for that, in stores). And yes, as far as I know, since Americans don’t drink as much tea as Australia and England, we don’t tend to have tea kettles in our kitchens. My family used our kettle for making oatmeal, and I always made tea using the microwave. Yes, I know, my British friends at home have been shuddering over that for years.
Sorry, got off track, there. Despite no Starbucks or regular coffee chains, I’ve managed to drink a lot of it, still. The McCafe at McDonalds is really quite good, I sometimes get a cuppa (with dessert) at Blossoms book shop, the Irish Pub makes good mochas, and I always get coffee with my potato wedges at Bogey’s. This really is the best way to do it, as the house is pretty warm, as we head into summer, and making a hot cup of coffee isn’t very appealing, when it’s hot. But if you’re in a restaurant, with some lovely air-conditioning, then it goes quite well.
There you have it. I’m not a coffee connoisseur, and it’s pretty difficult for me to recognize a bad cup of coffee. So, for you Starbucks haters, you’ll have to get over it. Since caffeine has no effect on me, I can’t tell the difference between regular or decaf coffee. I can eat chocolate-covered coffee beans until the cows come home, and have no ill effects (aside from a little weight gain, perhaps). And I have never, ever been able to drink my tea or coffee without some form of sweetener in it, which is why I carry Splenda with me, wherever I go.
But man, do I love me some coffee. And whoever thought of putting coffee shops in bookstores (my favorite place to be), well, they were just plain brilliant. And when I arrive back in the U.S. (probably at LAX), the first thing I’ll be doing is getting a White Chocolate Mocha or some kind of latte, at the local Starbucks. Because, guaranteed, the airport will have several. Americans do not like to live without their coffee.