“We solve all the problems of the country here,” says Marybeth Canavan with a laugh from one end of a long table where every seat is taken. “Maybe the world.”
It’s Monday morning at Common Grounds, a coffee shop on Main Street in downtown Branford, and the conversation is in full swing. “We talk about books,” says one of Canavan’s tablemates. “We talk about politics,” announces somebody else. “He’s telling us about the big fish he caught on a recent trip to Florida,” says another, pointing at one of his friends.
The point is, they talk. Common Grounds isn’t just a place to get a nice caffeine buzz; it’s a place to buzz.
The comfortable spot features plenty of seating, from small tables perfect for solo coffee drinking or small groups, to the larger table located right inside the entrance, where the loquacious crew of regulars usually takes up residence for a couple of hours most weekday mornings.
It’s a fluid group; people come and go, dropping in to say hello or settling down to discuss that day’s headlines, willing to talk with anyone who comes their way (even nosy writers like me). Their presence contributes to the social vibe that filters through the coffee shop.
Amy McKechnie, a manager and barista, often skips traditional salutations when greeting customers because she knows so many of the people who walk through the door. She comments on the length of one customer’s hair, asking another about his weekend, while she gets their drinks ready without having to ask what they want. “Everybody’s a regular,” she says. “And they all order the same things.”
But you don’t have to be a regular to get a lot out of Common Grounds. Plentiful seating and electrical outlets means it’s a reliable place to get some work done, and the family-owned business boasts an expansive coffee menu including old favorites like cappuccinos, lattes and mochas, as well as an array of small-batch roasted beans available by the pound. There are baked goods like oversized biscotti and my favorite, the Morning Glory Muffins, as well as decadent brownies and cupcakes.
But the main draw for many? The culture. This is like the “Cheers” of coffee houses, where everybody knows your name.
“I like it because of the people,” says McKechnie of her job. She adds that when she was working there full-time (she’s scaled it down to two days a week), she felt like she saw the daily regulars more than her own mother. “I know all about their lives.”
The affection is mutual. “Amy’s important,” says Bob Ripoll, back at the table with Canavan and the rest of group. “If she wasn’t here we’d have no one to pick on, and no one would pick on us.”
Joking—indeed, joking about all the joking—seems a regular part of the scene here, a good thing since, as Glenn Mallory says, “I think we’re a reflection of the political spectrum,” and certain discussions are bound to get heated. When I ask how they all know each other, everyone is talking at the same time. Someone says, dryly, “Well, Billy started out reading the paper over there. And I was reading it over here. And then we started talking.”
It turns out most of the individuals sitting at the table didn’t know the others before Common Grounds. In fact, “I don’t know anybody’s last names,” says Harriet Zimbouski. She doesn’t seem to mind.
This particular coffee shop experience fills a need for the group of mostly retirees, offers Mallory. “When you retire, you leave a workplace, you leave a place where you have contact with others. When you come here, it gives you that contact. We get to do the same thing we did at work. It’s truly a common ground for us.”
His compatriots in conversation are quick to offer praise for the wordplay, along with a little chiding, too.
1096 Main Street, Branford (map)
Mon-Tues 6am-10pm, Wed-Sat 6am-11pm, Sun 7am-9pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.