the next small thing


Last Saturday night, we went to dinner with friends. The dinner was good and the decor was cool enough, but it felt like the owners were working on a concept they hoped would become the next Cheesecake Factory. I don’t want sound as though all I’m doing is taking easy shots at an easy target. The food was good. The service was good. The place was really nice. They are trying hard. And it felt like a concept, not an offering. It felt like they hoped to have the same restaurant in Phoenix and Dallas and Any Mall, USA, which is fine.

Food, however, tastes better when it has roots.

The restaurant came to mind today because I’m writing from Cocoa Cinnamon, the newest addition to our downtown neighborhood and the antithesis to last weekend’s dining experience. Areli and Leon, the owners and creators of this IMG_0984wonderful little shop, have turned an old gas station into a living art installation, inviting each of us who come in for coffee or Mexican sipping chocolate to find more here than the Next Big Thing; instead, it’s the Next Small Thing, which is even better news. As Win Bassett wrote one afternoon last week:

5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Cocoa Cinnamon in Durham. Twenty people, not including baristas. Several just chatting, Jane Eyre, Virginia Woolf, 3 laptops, newspapers. African tribal music low in the background. Heaven.

Ginger and I got to know Areli and Leon when they first started out with Bike Coffee, which is exactly what it sounds like. Stopping by the bike for a coffee at the Saturday Farmers’ Market became our regular routine. As plans for the shop took shape, we hosted a coffee and chocolate tasting in our home. At every turn, I saw their artist’s-eye-view of things. Every cup of coffee had a story brewed in. As construction began and continued, we would stop by on our evening walks to see what was going IMG_0987 on. They collected pieces of conveyor belt salvaged from the now disappeared tobacco warehouses, along with pieces of flooring and shelving. They looked for leftover pieces of Durham wherever they could find them and gave them new life. And they invited both old and new friends to make their mark on the space. Here is an excerpt of a write up from a local media outlet:

Community support and involvement was a huge component in creating Cocoa Cinnamon. The couple used Kickstarter to help raise funds.

  “A lot of the community really chipped in,” Areli said.
Local artist David Solow basically curated the shop, which is located in a renovated gas station. The decor colors come from spices. The walls are a mustard seed yellow and the lights, which are holdovers from the gas station, are a paprika shade.IMG_1090
Local artists like Heather Gordon also chipped in.
Gordon is known for her works which convert original analog data to digital binary code. The floor she did for Cocoa Cinnamon contains elements of literary giant Walt Whitman and the brainwave recordings of Carl Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan.
“We really wanted the front room to be geometrics,” Areli said. The design Gordon created is a bright collection of tiles in soaring patterns.
The drink condiment station is a converted cabinet with interesting trinkets inside the front panels.
Much of the decor is from re-purposed materials, Areli said.

Re-purposed. What a great word. I know I like because it resonates inside of me like a grand piano in an empty concert hall: I live a life that has been re-purposed more than once — and I am in the middle of doing it yet again. I fit into the decor of this room, even though yellow isn’t my best color. Along side of the belts and bits of shelving, the painted garage floors and the power-washed bricks, I, too, am trying to figure out how to write for a living. (Some days, I’m trying to figure out how to write and make a living.) There’s something about these walls, holding the shiny and the scars side by side, that invites me to be here: in the shop, in Durham, in me.IMG_1088

In these final days leading into Lent, re-purposing strikes me as a valuable and viable spiritual metaphor for the season: how do I reshape and restore and refocus this little life of mine? Needless to say, I will chase that rabbit and several others from my place in this little prayerbook of a coffee shop in the days to come.



  1. Well, if I DO make a bucket list, Thursday dinner will be on that list. And now a visit to Cinnamon Coffee will be added. I confess to liking Starbucks. But this seems so much more interesting, and of course unique.

  2. Yeah, I dig re-purposed, and something about this post makes me think about my dad. He’s a cool guy, really. Odd, but cool. He’s always had the same trade (welding), but he’s a man of many hobbies. Not at the same time, though. I mean, there have been seasons. He’s hunted about everything imaginable, including bear and raccoons. He’s hunted with dogs. He’s hunted w/ different weapons. He’s fished on a bank. He’s fished and crabbed in a boat. He’s hiked the Appalachian Trail. He’s been a pilot w/ his own plane. He’s been a horse man. He’s been a farmer. He’s been a bark basket-maker. And I could go on and on. But I really respect his hunger for learning and adventure.

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