Pull Up a Chair: a Conversation with smdlr
When I created A Table in the Corner of the Cafe, my goal was to create a place where coffee lovers could come together to dialogue about coffee. It is, after all, the ultimate beverage to have conversation over. A table in the corner of the cafe invokes imagery of community, of conversation, of slowing down and enjoying the company of others – this is the sort of environment that today’s guest thrives on.
Today, I welcome Chermelle D. Edwards, creator of smdlr, to the table here in the corner of this cafe. Chermelle – feel free to pull up a chair.
First of all, I just want to say that it’s a massive honor to welcome you here at the Table. I’m a really big fan of your website, smdlr. But before we get started, could you introduce yourself and tell us all a little about you?
Thanks Drew, I’m honored to be an honor.
Introduce myself? I’m the first daughter of two creative parents, one of five children, I’m in a long distance relationship with my hometown of Los Angeles, I have a penchant for paper and I love, love, love people.
Like I said, I’m a big fan of smdlr. It’s a really unique mash-up of coffee/cafe reviews, character profiles, pop culture write-ups, Gonzo journalism, and photography. When I first read the blog, I thought “Well, this makes sense. It’s so obvious!” Because when you’re sitting in a cafe, the things that your site features are the things you notice while you’re there. It seemed like such an obvious idea, until I realized that I, nor any other notable coffee blogger out there, thought of doing what you do. Everything else out there, including A Table in the Corner of the Cafe, is so macro – focusing on really big ideas; like coffee and cafe reviews, or opinion pieces on the coffee industry; smdlr, on the other hand, is incredibly micro in that it focuses on one specific experience in one specific cafe. I guess what I’m asking is, How did you come up with the idea for smdlr?
First, thanks for recognizing the spirit of smdlr. You’re right on about its intentions – it’s consciously a little bit of everything. The goal was and is to cover the aspects of culture from the epicenter of the coffee shop.
I came up with the idea while working a day job that I loathed. And, yes I’m part of that story of people working a job that wasn’t their passion. The interesting thing is, I didn’t mind the field – Advertising Sales in a Business setting -, I just didn’t like how it was applied in my environment. I was writing for some cultural magazines in conjunction with my day job. And, one day I was going to go cover a new coffee shop in my neighborhood for an online magazine I was writing for at the time. When I got there and walked in, the coffee shop made me feel something; I felt transported, you could say.
There was so much in that moment, and so much expressed in the design of the coffee shop that I decided then and there that I didn’t want to write about coffee shops from the perspective of anyone else other than my own. I also realized that I wanted to document this experience I was having. My friends said then and they say now, that I live in coffee shops; I do, I love them. So, that got my wheels turning.
Meanwhile, I was searching for something of my own, something where I could express and develop my own editorial voice and more importantly something so universal that it would eventually take me anywhere in the world and finance my love for traveling and exploring culture. I’m the girl that writes notes on everything – napkins, stickies, gum wrappers. And so it was, one day at my desk on the 45th floor of a building, that I wrote on a napkin from lunch, “coffee.”
That was it; that was the beginning, Spring 2008.
In the “About” section of smdlr, you say, “I love coffee. I love coffee shops even more.” What is it about coffee shops that you find so appealing and romantic?
I do have a romance with them. Hmmm, it started when I was in college. But, perhaps before them because both my parents are coffee drinkers, a detail I didn’t pay much attention to until after smdlr was conceived. When I was in college there was a little shop on campus, that was very much the look of a coffee shop. I’d go there and sit and lounge and write and it just made me feel good. When I got my first truck, an old Jeep Wagoneer, complete with wood siding, I had more access to the city. I began discovering these cute little places. I remember a friend taking me to a place on sunset blvd once – whoa, back in the fall of 2001 – it’s closed now.
But, it was the coolest thing, poets slamming, live music going, old books strewn purposely as décor, I loved it! I wanted to have a cool hat, get a pen and prop it behind my ears, have a waist apron and serve coffee. lol. It was so underground, smart, earthy and forward, it just spoke to me. And, when something speaks to me, well, I speak back, by looking for more of it.
The extension of that sentence, “even more,” carries a lot of weight. What about coffee shops do you love “even more” than coffee?
I can go without coffee, I can’t go without a coffee shop. When I conceived smdlr, it was at least three years since I had my last coffee. I was a serious tea drinker at the time, because I was a marathon runner. When I was writing my bio, that extension naturally came out of a free write. I wrote that because it’s true. Coffee shops are more than the coffee. Good coffee is important, but bad coffee won’t keep a person from going to a coffee shop, but a bad experience will. I find that quite compelling socially. If a person wanted to sell coffee, they could really just do like a walk up space where you’d ordered from a walk up window and leave the operations closed off.
But, see a coffee shop offers you in. A coffee shop at its base level is social, it’s communal, it’s a gathering space, it’s an experience. Given that, every single coffee shop is an opportunity for something so individualized, yet uber universal. I’ve always said that the coffee shop is the American equivalent of the Irish pub, because it’s the one standby for all people in any situation: first dates (and, of course, last dates), business meetings, daily hangout, place of seclusion, “third place.”
Is there any other beverage that you think could replace coffee as an American social institution?
That’s a great question.There’s a book, The History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage. It’s really good. If it was possible, I’d say drinks with natural carbonation, beyond just soda.
This is going to sound pretty meta, but imagine there was no such thing as coffee. What do you think today’s “coffee shop” would specialize in?
Great question. I think it would specialize in an experience – one that was locally driven, one where people felt they were purchasing the personification of an ethos. So perhaps, you’d have a “shop” that would serve home brewed hops, or a “shop” that served locally based “candies” or “ an array of sweets” or “savorys” and then its cultural programming would serve as an aside to its edible offerings.
Let’s get back to you for a moment – how long have you been a photographer? A writer? When did you start realizing you had a knack for blending the mediums together?
Writing is in my blood; from my mother, to my grandmother and my great grandmother and they are all still alive. I’ve been writing since I was in the second grade, it started with selling 5 cent poems, literally. I’ve been shooting around for a few years. My father has always encouraged me to think out of the box, to expand my mind. I like to say I’m a photographer by passion. So, when I got my Nikon DSLR it was a new tool in which to be expressive. I remember being at Intelligentsia in Venice, I saw a guy sitting with a full carafe of coffee and he was framed so beautifully, in the setting so I asked to shoot him. I went home, downloaded the picture and literally that’s how my tumblr began. I feel blending the mediums chose me, I didn’t choose it.
Music also plays a major role in your life. On your website you state that “every coffee shop has a sound.” What do you mean by this?
Ahhhhh music. For me, there is a musical frequency within the walls of a coffee shop and one of my goals with smdlr is to get under that current. I’m always searching to understand how a coffee shops physical elements translate into a auditory experience. As clearly as a coffee shop expresses itself through an aesthetic – be it high ceilings, exposed brick, reclaimed wood, used furniture, wall to wall art, or just a bar or a single communal table – that aesthetic, translates into a vibe, that evokes some kind of audio trigger in me. That’s the best way that I can explain it.
You’re a New Yorker – what does NYC’s coffee culture look like nowadays? At one time, from an outsider’s perspective, it seemed like NYC was a coffee town – in the sense that you could get a 50 cent cup of at any corner grocer in any part of the city. However, in the past couple years, NYC seems like it’s having a coffee revival with the likes of Cafe Grumpy, Gorilla Coffee, 40 Weight Coffee, et al. As a New Yorker, and a coffee lover, what’s your take on NYC’s burgeoning specialty coffee scene?
It’s funny to be called a New Yorker. I claim New York but in the same breath I say, I’m a Cali girl through and through. In respects to NYC’s coffee culture, and not coffee quality – I think its looking moderately expansive. By that I mean, I can find different spaces with their own intentions relatively easily in certain neighborhoods. I still believe there is so much growth to occur as far as the coffee shop being a cultural epicenter. And that epicenter involves education, fashion, music, art and video – coming out of the coffee shop. My job is to curate it by creating content for readers to consume. I believe once people see more of this, they’ll see that a coffee shop could be equivalent to any of the world’s greatest museums.
This “revival” that you speak of, I’m not sure if its something that I understand. It’s like saying specialty coffee in the form of the likes of Café Grumpy, and others was once here, left and returned. Coffee shops have been around for a long time. I feel we are experiencing a new generation of coffee shop more than a revival of them. And, the new generation is building upon what was before and more importantly I feel, its tirelessly looking to fill a void. Its like when television went from broadcasting in black and white to color. I feel like coffee culture is coming into its “color.”
How do you feel New York’s coffee scene stacks up against the likes Chicago’s? Or San Francisco’s? Portland’s? Seattle’s?
This may sound weird but I don’t feel qualified to properly answer that question as of now. Although I’ve been to each of the places you mention except Seattle, I’ve only been to Portland since starting smdlr. Let’s just say I intend to make a coffee pilgrimage there every year; it was that revolutionary for me. As for as the coffee “scene,” I think that is driven by its community and those in its outliers that want to experience what that “scene” offers. A scene changes, and the coffee scene is changing a lot right now.
Describe your favorite coffee shop you’ve been to in your coffee journey. What do you love most about it?
That’s a really hard question.
Actually, no it isn’t, I can answer that.
If in L.A., Fix in Echo Park – it sits on a hill fenced in by a shroud of greenery, serving Intelligentsia – it has like a double personality – an experience inside that feels like you’re on an old ship where Etta James could be singing live, and an experience outside, where I want to wear a tank, cutoffs, chucks without socks and listen to some Otis Redding or Shout Out Louds. It’s just everything; I have the best coffee dates there.
If in Portland, it’s the shop that moved me to tears as soon as I walked in. It was a space that just spoke to my sensibility and this before I even had their coffee, Heart Coffee Roasters. Then, I had their coffee, and I cried, cautiously of course. If in New York, it’s a shop that has inspired me with the possibilities of what my palate can experience based upon treating coffee as a beverage with scientific properties, WTF Coffee Lab.
Thanks again, Chermelle, for joining me at the Table. Many wishes for continued success with smdlr, and I can’t wait for you to bring your camera and notebooks to Chicago!