Seattle is a long way from the Midlands of South Carolina, but I found myself there in the 1990s and stayed for nearly 12 years. Seattle was once described to me by a native Seattleite as a big city with a small town mentality, and in so many ways I came to realize the truth in that description.
For five years I lived in the city proper, and discovered that like Manhattan and its boroughs, each neighborhood had its own unique identity, its own sense of place and community apart from the big picture of Seattle.
My favorite restaurants and coffee bars were right down the street from our Capitol Hill apartment. Capitol Hill overlooked downtown and combined quaint old neighborhoods with hip youth culture. I often shopped at The King of the Hill, a locally-owned market not much bigger than a suburban living room – I could be there and back in 10 minutes when the wife ran out of milk. The City People’s Mercantile was a great place to get potted plants, hardware, and tools. A twenty minute uphill trek by foot would get you to Volunteer Park, where climbing the spiral staircase of the old brick water tower yielded spectacular views of the city. I could walk to three different art house movie theatres given a 15 minute head start on show time. There were probably half a dozen excellent spots for Thai food, and let’s not even get started with a count of coffee houses!
Supporting local business was just the way we lived. I knew my neighbors, walked to the movies and the grocery store, and patronized the small businesses on my block. I once paid $20 for a hand-made book of poetry for my wife that a modern-day beat poet was selling on the sidewalk. That, in my book, is the definition of supporting the local economy.
Fast-forward to the present, two years after hanging out my shingle in Lexington. When I left South Carolina, all those years ago, Lexington seemed but a small, lakeside outpost. I returned to find that Lexington was the place to be in the Midlands. The population had exploded. Highway 378 was looking more like Harbison Boulevard than a winding two lane conduit between West Columbia and Lexington, the trees and farmland on either side replaced with shopping centers and housing developments. I had a lot of friends in the area, good pals from the old days, and whenever I found myself having a meal at a local restaurant, I would run into at least one familiar face. We would shake hands, linger, catch up on recent events. I thought to myself, this is where I want to be. You know… “where everybody knows your name.”
Yet in this new Lexington I saw signs of growing pains. The drive from Columbia to Lexington on Sunset Boulevard at rush hour reminded me of Seattle’s I-405 commute, ranked 8th worst in America. Main Street, at times, was a frustrating log jam. Several small businesses, a few of which I patronized, opened and then closed their doors, victims of a tough economy and, might I suggest, competition with national chain stores with deep pockets and cheaper prices. I’m not knocking big box stores – they create jobs and contribute to healthy economic growth. And they are brands that people want. Better to shop at Lexington Big Box than drive across the dam to drop some bucks at Irmo Big Box. No offense, Irmo, I love ya, but for me Lexington comes first. It’s where I live and work, and I want it to thrive.
I’ve found that even through its growth spurt, Lexington has retained its sense of community and hometown flavor. It boasts top-notch schools, innovative and progressive local businesses, and people who work and play and gather and worship in what for me is the place to be in the Midlands. The lawns are manicured and the crepe myrtles bloom. Charming Main Street keeps memory lane alive and well, and right around the corner you find yourself looking brand new business structures, with plenty of cars in the parking lot.
I opened Jamestown Coffee with the idea of taking the community-focused Seattle neighborhood coffee bar and planting it here in the South as a place for people to gather, relax, converse, conduct business, study, express themselves, or just surf the Web over a Palmetto Pecan Latté. And to my delight, I have seen the essence of community blossoming not just at Jamestown but all over Lexington. Neighbors show their generosity when someone in the community, even a stranger, is in need. They show up to stroll the annual Wine Walk and to play at Kids’ Day. Small businesses of all sorts donate their wares to school auctions. Politicians set up hot dog stands on Halloween night, and churches organize huge collaborative charity events. Local talent performs on local stages most every night of the week.
Lexington does indeed hold fast a unique identity, a sense of kinship and community that takes me back to my days in the Capital Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I defy anyone to say that this is merely a bedroom community for Columbia. Hardly. Lexington is its own. It’s got mettle, character, personality. And as our community continues to blossom, as the borders of Lexington continue to stretch and expand ever outward, my hope is that those that live and work here will continue to realize the importance of keeping our hearts, minds and dollars right here in the place we call home.
Editor’s Note: Jamestown Coffee has since closed its doors, but we will be forever thankful to James Kirk for his love and service to the Lexington community.