As a haunter of coffee shops, I often can’t tell whether I’m creating a great experience myself or partaking of one that already exists. Every coffee shop has its aura, ranging from lame to lavish. I prefer a middle ground: a cafe with a healthy dose of atmosphere, yet one that doesn’t impose itself too trendily, as if to say, “Look at me, I’m a coffee shop.” Believe it or not, a coffee shop can be over-proud, vigorously milking its mystique as a gathering place for creative types, or waxing snobbish over its artisanal espresso drinks and the skill of its baristas. Conversely, some of them lack personality altogether, suggesting that the business cares surprisingly little for success. Fainting Goat Coffee, in my current home of Spring Hill, Tennessee, finds that sweet spot in the middle.
When done well, a coffee shop becomes a community hub–a center around which patrons’ expectations for either camaraderie or solitude are met with aplomb; an enclave of casual comfort; a modern-day public square in miniature; a sanctuary of both work and leisure. Fainting Goat Coffee plays these roles, and it plays them well. Though I usually go myself to read or write in solitude (aided by noise-canceling headphones), I observe a full range of interactions: people conducting business, blogging, socializing, and everything in-between. Yet it never gets loud; it remains ideal for the gentler, quieter pursuits that attract people like me to coffee shops in the first place.
The first time you visit the Fainting Goat, it’s obvious the cafe occupies a formerly private residence. Cursory research online reveals the house was built in 1900, but I could find no information about people who used to live there (at least not without signing up for some dubious paid service that may not even reveal the kind of information I was looking for). I did find a video walk-through of the property on the Bearden Group–Keller Williams Facebook page, recorded prior to the Fainting Goat’s occupation. In the video, you see the structure vacant but with the imprint of domestic life: hardwoods that creaked under generations of footsteps, echoing with the sounds of dropped toys or tableware; fireplaces that once blazed with the hearth’s promise of food and heat; the closet under the stairs* that must’ve drawn the curiosity of dozens over its hundred-year span–a century of triumph, heartache, joy, sadness, boredom, love, gain, loss, and ecstasy, all encased in the old walls. It’s a fine setting for a coffee shop. A fine place to ruminate, negotiate, self-educate, and relax.
I take my coffee black, always; I never order lattes or cappuccinos. And the Dark Horse blend (from nearby Muletown Roasted Coffee) is quite tasty. Nevertheless, I’m no authority on fine espresso beverages. The apparent popularity of the Horchata Latte, however, suggests the baristas of Fainting Goat Coffee know their craft. They take their time (this, I’ve observed), and the requisite foam I’ve seen atop various drinks passing across the counter implies they understand their product, as well. Furthermore, I’ve always received friendly, non-condescending service. (The non-condescending thing matters, because as I mentioned before, a certain snobbishness sometimes attends the independently-owned coffee shop. In fact, one of my favorites in Nashville is plagued with this. I won’t name the place, because, despite their misanthropy, I still love it and don’t want to throw shade on their business.) In one room, the walls are hung with historic photographs of Spring Hill, including one of the fabled “goat man” of Maury County, who used to roam country roads with a stagecoach-like wagon pulled by goats; the room across the hall is decorated with artistic portraits of goats-as-cultural-icons, my favorite being one that parodies David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album cover. Located in a central room–the heart of the shop, of course–is the espresso bar and pastry case. The goat theme reaches its zenith here, via cleverly themed t-shirts and various other merchandise, all consistent with the Fainting Goat Coffee brand.
Everything at Fainting Goat Coffee is so well done: the drinkable product; the atmosphere and decor; the branding and merchandising–it’s a balanced blend of urban amenity with smalltown eccentricity, an encapsulation of what Spring Hill has become over the last decade: a place coming to terms with unfathomable population growth while striving to maintain the character of its rural past. Fainting Goat Coffee, then, is a bona fide asset to the town, a shining microcosm of the good that can come from the battle between expansion and integrity. Reign it in, you might say, it’s only a coffee shop. But the more I think about it, the more I see Fainting Goat Coffee as a model of what Spring Hill must necessarily be, if the town hopes to safeguard its character and not become just any other place.
Earlier, I used the word “sanctuary” in my description of what a successful coffee shop offers its customers. My favorite table in the Fainting Goat is a two-seater near one of the aforementioned fireplaces. The old house’s fireplaces appear to be bricked in, serving now only as aesthetic elements. Yet I still stare into the one nearest my table, wondering at the lives that have unfolded before it–at maybe the letters or documents, or the photographs of faithless lovers, that have burned to ash beneath its grate; or, less dramatically, at the elderly who found warmth there, knowing this life was fading; or at the family whose confidence grew, huddled before that hearth, realizing they’d survive the ice storm after all. At some point, I’ll look up. Through the old wavy glass of a front window, I see the early evening traffic on Highway 31, and beyond that is what I’ve come to think of as “the most interesting house in Spring Hill” (actually, it vies with one other for that title, but that’s a topic for another time), the golden sun setting warmly on its ancient brick chimney. Then I look around at the room in which I sit. At home with its ghosts, intrigued by its silence and with what the walls won’t say, I fashion characters of my own–conflicted, earthy personalities for the stories I write. Or perhaps I see more clearly the characters I read about. And if what I feel in that moment doesn’t resemble the awe-stricken hush of a sacred space, then I’ve misunderstood what a sanctuary is.
*Signs inside the Fainting Goat read, “Please leave your dishes in Harry Potter’s Room (The Cupboard under the Stairs).” And then on the odd little door itself——>