93 Williamstown, MA: THE Coffee Shop

[Williamstown in a postcard]

Before my visit, when I inquired by e-mail about the artsy coffee shop in town, a museum employee replied, "You have never been to Williamstown, have you? There is not an artsy coffee shop but simply the coffee shop. You'll get every coffee drinker in the town, artsy or not. This is a town of 8,000 people, so just ask anyone if you get turned around."

That employee also answered my question about Hopperesque isolation in Williamstown. "Not at all. Hopper's figures are usually lone female figures gazing out at the city. Besides the obvious (i.e., there is no city to gaze out at), it's pretty hard to remain an isolated, anonymous person in Williamstown. It's a small town, and everybody here knows everybody, including the family history both good and bad. If the world is separated by six degrees of separation, here it's more like three! This is, as I'm sure you've guessed, both a blessing and an annoyance."

The coffee shop was clad in dark green walls and can lights focused on the glass-and-wood display case full of mugs and brews. One room over was situated a lounge with a plank floor where an interesting mix of punks, preps, and woodsmen populated the tables. Around a fireplace in the middle, a group of college-aged kids huddled--my best opportunity for interviews. An Asian guy with spiked black hair and sporting silver oval glasses and a heavy blue wool overcoat sat playing with two long coffee stirrers, putting them in his mouth or drumming them on the table. He told me he was from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. An energetic, tanned guy with a light goatee and orange fleece vest said he was from L.A. but had lived in Williamstown since graduating the previous spring. Lastly, a bright-eyed, broad-shouldered girl in a big gray sweater who also graduated the previous year and moved back home to Cody, Wyoming was back for Homecoming weekend.

The girl from Wyoming said, "I think I studied Hopper, but I can't remember what my paper was about."

"Do you feel people here are as isolated as Hopper's characters?"

"Yes," she answered. "Everybody here just goes to their houses, even the Williams professors who live in town. Hardly anyone really lives here. Sometimes you wonder if the larger community knows that there's a larger community. And it's easy to forget how very large it is. Our borders run up to New Hampshire and over to New York. It's bigger than Boston in terms of area. But most of it is forest."

"There's a big rift between the college and town," the Asian announced. "The college owns most of the prime property in town. This whole strip they own. And it's the only business area in town. Now, the college wants to build a multimillion dollar performing arts center, and the residents are fighting it tooth and nail. It's kind of interesting because, like we said, some of the residents are Williams teachers. So they're in a tough situation. It's such a small town your neighbor knows your every move."

"There's a lot of historical buildings here," added the kid from L.A. "The locals are wary of what the college will do. I wanted to see what the East Coast was like, but I think I'll go back to the West Coast."

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