Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Babies, Baristas & Boogie Nights - Jessicah Kendrick & The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse

Jessicah doesn’t know the sex of her and Chris’s baby.  They’re waiting to find that out at the birth. It’s going to be part of the excitement of the occasion, seeing their little child for the first time and being told ‘here’s your son/daughter’.  It means they can’t get stocked up in advance with pink or blue, but they don’t particularly care about pink or blue and babies certainly don’t know the difference.  They’ve bought a cot, a rug, a bath tub and some plastic ducks. That’s enough for now. 

What about a name, I ask.  If it’s a boy, Jessicah says, Chris is keen on Django, but Django Unchained has rather put her off.  Besides, why should the baby be named after a musician admired by its father any more than a coffee-shop its mother once worked in? Starbucks Kendrick? Or Django Quinn.  Or Django Starbucks Kendrick-Quinn? Which one do you think has the right ring?

The Chris I’m talking about is Chris Quinn, whom I interviewed earlier this year.  The Jessicah is Jessicah Kendrick, the amazingly zippy founder-come-manager-at-large of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse.  For once she’s not dashing about, but sitting on my sofa nursing her neat little bump.  She’s a petite, wiry woman with an elfin face and big smile, and she’s smiling now, telling me that Chris reckons a baby won’t change their lives. It’s going to be easy.  If it was that hard, people wouldn’t do it - that's what Chris says. 

I’m not saying anything, and I don’t need to.  Jessicah is the oldest of a family of five. She remembers her dad leaving the house and driving off into the night accompanied by crying babies.  She knows it won’t be quite as easy as Chris thinks, but reckons they’re ready for it, and that Chris’s lifestyle as a guitarist won’t get in the way.  His working nights and her working days could even end up being a bonus when it comes to childcare.  

All of this is conveyed in a soft American drawl.  The family arrived in Shrewsbury from the States when Jessicah was thirteen. She was a young-for-her-age, tree-climbing thirteen. When in her first few days at school she was told, ‘My friend thinks you’re cute, will you go out with him?’ she was shocked. Dating and Bacardi Breezers were a world away. But she adapted.  ‘It’s what you do in a situation like that.  What you have to do. I started wearing cooler clothes and hanging out with the popular girls.  It wasn’t until SCAT that I got to be myself again.’

After SCAT [Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology] came Middlesex University and a Fine Arts degree.  As well as art, Jessicah was interested in sociology.  Back in the 80s, everything had seemed silver-lined, but it wasn’t like that now and she wanted to know what had happened.  How had Sex in the City turned into Desperate Housewives? Why were so many women no longer willing to call themselves feminists? 

This interest developed into Jessicah’s dissertation.  In times of economic upheaval, she discovered, people looked backwards to what they knew and what made them feel safe. They also looked inward to what they could control. So folk music boomed, along with pursuits like knitting. Marriage came back in and so did an idealistic view of love and the two-point-two family. Against this backdrop, feminism came across to many as threatening.

After university, Jessicah returned to Shrewsbury and set about looking for a job. She woke up every morning with no lectures to go to, her student days a thing of the past. How to fill the rest of her life - especially for a live-wire girl who liked hard work and didn’t relish hanging about? Enter photographer and film-maker Richard Foot.    

Soon, along with Richard, Jessicah was involved with Platform Alteration, a monthly arts and music event held upstairs in the Old Post Office pub. People would bring along their artwork.  There’d be competitions and judgings. Bands would play.  The tall poet, Andi Fusek Peters, came for a reading.  Jessicah was on the committee.  It was a busy time.

Was that where Jessicah met Chris, I ask.   No, she says, she met him before that. Ten years before, and there had been a few dates. But they’d only really got together a few years ago. ‘There was a moment,’ Jessicah says, ‘when I thought, if I don’t go for this I just might lose it.’ And they’d been together ever since. 

‘We’re good together,’ Jessicah says. ‘We complement each other.  Both of us are work focused.  Both get on with people, both want the same things.  There are people who might find a musician’s lifestyle hard to live with.  But I’m an independent person.  I like time to myself.  If Chris is off to Germany for a gig, there’ll always be other things I want to do – either that or I’ll be off round to my mum’s.’    

Jessicah’s mum is Sheila Sager, artisan baker and co-chair of  Shrewsbury’s Town Centre Residents. She lives across town from Jessicah on one of Shrewsbury’s cobbled hills.  If her daughter’s busy and likes a bustling life, it’s because that’s always been the family way.  As a child, Jessicah, says, the house was always full. 

‘You’d come to the table, and fifteen other people would show up and some of them you’d know but others you’d never have seen before. Everyone was welcome. I have a distinct memory of bathrooms full of people dyeing their eyebrows blue, and rooms full of people with projects on the go.  Even when my parents weren’t in, kids would come round. In the UK, I learned, it wasn’t usual to go round to people’s houses unless you were invited.  But back in the States I could have knocked on any number of doors and  it would have been Hi Jessicah, does your mum know you’re here, do you want to stay to supper? There was a real sense of the community looking after its own children.  I guess we brought that with us when we moved to Shrewbury.’ 

Certainly Jessicah brought that with her when she opened up the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse.  What she wanted was a home from home. ‘A place to pitch ideas,’ she says, ‘to share stories, play games, chat and just hang out.’ Now here we are two years down the line, and I wonder how Jessicah feels it's worked in practice. 

‘I feel amazing about The Coffeehouse,’ she says.  ‘It’s exceeded all expectations. I remember somebody saying that the one thing Shrewsbury didn’t need was another coffee house, but they were wrong and I knew it even then.  I feel as if Shrewsbury was craving for something and the Coffeehouse filled the void. Do you know, over fifty per cent of our customers come in on an almost daily basis? Two years down the line, I really feel as thought the Coffeehouse belongs to its customers, and we owe it to them to keep it what it is.’

But in the first place, where did the idea come from? At one point, Jessicah says, she was going in five directions at the same time, working in Starbucks, in her mother’s bakery, training as an interior designer, helping make industrial-sized amounts of jam and doing up houses. She liked doing things with people, and she liked hard work. ‘If someone had said come and dig a giant hole with me, I’d have said yes,’ she says.  ‘I wouldn’t have given it a moment’s thought.’     

Eventually Jessicah had what one of her sisters called a  ‘quarter-life crisis’.  Creating a mind map was how she sorted herself out. What did she like doing?  She listed it all down.  What was she good at? That went down as well. What common ground was there, and was there any way of pulling it all together? Jessicah started looking for connections.  People. Building work. Good food and drink. Good chat.  Thinking. Music. Community. The arts.  Sleeves up.  Hard graft. A bit of demolition thrown in for good measure. Of course – a coffeehouse. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a coffee with Sheila Sager.  She told me that when Jessicah first came to her with her grand idea, she as her mother had been full of what about this, and have you thought about that, and Jessicah, I’m not so sure, and Jessicah, you do know that...  But Jessicah kept telling her, ‘Mum, this will work.  I know it will.’ 

And of course it has.

Jessicah says she enjoyed it all from the construction onwards, doing all the demolition and decorating,  spending days scraping off carpet glue with friends.  Then there was the shopping stage on eBay and in Salvage Yards for furniture and fittings.  Then the coffee stage, investigating roasteries, and the food stage, investigating local produce and menus. What she envisaged was the sort of ramshackle college-run coffeehouse that crops up in university towns - ramshackle in a good way, she emphasizes.  What she didn’t envisage was how busy or successful the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse would be, or what a wide range of people would use it, and continue to come back.  

What next, I ask?  Jessica says she doesn’t know for sure if this is her for life.  She could end up as a plumber or a landscape gardener or something else.  At the moment, there’s a shepherd’s hut in her parents garden that’s most definitely a project waiting to happen. ‘I love it,’ she says, ‘that some people feel a calling towards just one profession.  Artists, musicians, writers, whatever. But I’m not like that. I could be a carpenter.  Why not? Or go into zoology.  I mean, I love animals.’

Jessicah’s love of rabbits is something I decide not to pursue. What about her managements skills, I ask instead. She’s a great believer in delegation, she says.  In fact, she’d rather be told what to do than do it herself - that’s why she’s surrounded herself at the Coffeehouse with people who are good at directing.

There’s Simon, who does ordering and accounting, and Richie who’s in charge of food and drink, then, as overall manager, Jessicah’s in charge of events.  What she wants – and what she’s worked to achieve - is a team mentality.  She remembers how soul destroying it used to be back in the days when she worked in a coffee shop elsewhere.  ‘The only chance of expressing individuality,’ she says, ‘was by the number of multi-coloured pens tucked in your apron, or the way you poured the drinks.  No way do I want the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse to be like that. I love it when people use their initiative.’ 

On the subject of events, I want to know more. The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse has taken off like a sky-rocket, and it’s not only because of its coffee - it’s because of its events. To begin with Jessicah used Chris’s contacts to book live acts, but slowly word got out that a Shrewsbury Coffeehouse gig was worth adding to the tour. The place would be packed.  The audience would be appreciative.  The venue allowed for the sort of intimate atmosphere that show-cased jazz, folk, swing and roots music at its best.

Jessicah’s been pulling in some big names too. Last year the Coffeehouse hosted Fapy Lafertin, the godfather of Gypsy Jazz.  Then they had Dick Gaughean – he of the legendary Boys of the Lough. Then John Etheridge, Stephane Grappelli’s long-term guitarist, performed - and that night was so popular that he’s coming back this week to a Shrewsbury Coffeehouse event at the Lion Hotel.*

To be able to bring to Shrewsbury musicians of this calibre  – especially to a new venue - is quite a feat.  But in the coming year, the Coffeehouse also has booked Tim Kliphaus, the Dutch virtuoso violinst who trained with Stephane Grappelli;  Clive Carroll; John Doyle, who played for Barack Obama at The White House on St Patrick’s Day; and Catfish Keith, American acoustic blues singer-songwriter/steel guitarist.    

Jessicah loves it that people of all ages come to these events.  She also loves it that other groups use the Coffeehouse too. There’s a book club and a thriving poetry group, and everybody from bus users’ groups to school PTAs are holding their meetings in the Coffeehouse.  ‘If it’s open, why not?’ Jessicah says.  ‘The space is there to be used.’ 

How does Jessicah see the Coffeehouse developing? More work needs to be done on the food front, she reckons, introducing interesting cheeses and meats, and breakfasts including fruit and yoghurt. And it would great to have lectures sometimes. Jessicah  would love to get people in to talk about their different fields – art history, philosophy, science or whatever.  And on the subject of science, she’d love a New Scientist magazine club where instead of sitting round talking about books, people could talk about latest articles.  If someone volunteered [hint] to set it up, she’d give it her full support.  However, with a baby just ten weeks away, even someone as active and busy as Jessicah can see that it isn’t the moment to be doing it herself.

When that baby comes, I’ll let you all know.  We’ll hang out the buntings and raise a glass.  For now, however, it’s time to say goodbye. Jessicah stands on the doorstep.  Today’s her ‘day off’, but already she’s been into the Coffeehouse once, then on here to talk to me, and now she’s heading back again to find the Coffeehouse diary and book an event. 

I say I hope that when she gets there, she won’t stay. What she should be doing is going home, putting up her feet and taking a rest.  If you see her doing anything else, tell her straight.  But will she listen?  Will she hell.

What's on at The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse

*STOP PRESS:  This Friday, April 19th

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