A Day in the Life of Borderlands Cafe

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Author’s note: All the comments in bold were copied from the guest book at Borderlands Cafe. 

It’s Tuesday. 6:53 a.m. 56 degrees. And I can’t find parking in the Mission District.

Darn traffic laws.

“No parking Tuesday between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m for street cleaning.”

“1 hour parking only.”

“No stopping anytime.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an empty curbside. I’m not wearing my glasses — is it a mirage?

I make an illegal U-turn, pull over, thank the parking gods, double-check the locks (I own a Toyota Corolla, a car thief’s wet dream) and walk quickly down Valencia Street.

“#occupy borderlands” — Scott, undated

A day earlier I had phoned Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Books and neighboring Borderlands Cafe.

“I’d like to spend the entire day at Borderlands for a feature story — is that OK?”

Beatts had to check with his employees and get back to me.

John Butterfield opens the cafe at 7 a.m., an hour early. I can shadow the opening process and hang out until closing, Beatts replied later in the afternoon.

“As long as you don’t get in the way.”

“I feel like I’m at grandma’s house” — Nate, 9/30/11

I turn on 19th Street and knock on the door at 7:01 a.m. It’s my first time at Borderlands.

I spot Butterfield through the window. He smiles, welcomes me in and quickly returns to the kitchen. He’s the only barista until 11 a.m. And I don’t want to get in the way.

The sun pierces the large windows, illuminating the cafe in a natural golden light.

The chairs are turned over on the tables. It’s quiet, no music — a company policy, I later discover.

Wooden tables in the front, wooden tables in the back. Dozens of magazines are on display on a shelf behind the kitchen, which is exposed from the bar.

It’s a pleasant establishment.

I find an outlet near the window, in a small corner near the front — a strategic spot from which to stalk … er, observe — customers. I turn over a chair, plug in my laptop and nestle in.

At 7:07, a delivery arrives. I smell a whiff of fresh pastries.

The delivery man, in a blue shirt and gray cap, stares at me. I stare back.

Butterfield and the delivery man exchange a few words. He exits. The door closes behind him.

It’s quiet again.

The espresso machine buzzes and Butterfield washes dishes quietly.

“Silence. Great coffee. Silence. Great baristas. A wonderful, restful space” — Sarah 3/10/12

At 7:30 a.m., I decide to bother Butterfield.

He’s happy to chat, but doesn’t stop moving.

He fields my questions while cleaning the heads of the espresso machine, watering plants, preparing drip coffee, setting chairs, mopping the restroom and laying out pastries, in no particular order.

Butterfield’s a native San Franciscan and has worked part-time at the cafe for three years. He serves as the artistic director at a cross-gender-centric theater company in Berkeley — Butterfield 8 — where he now lives.

“I teach and choreograph. I no longer perform.”

The middle-aged barista is also a self-proclaimed geek.

“We’re all book geeks [here],” he said, standing on a stool, watering plants. “Our father read ‘Lord of the Rings’ to us at dinner. It was a family mythology.”

I laugh.

It’s quiet again for a few minutes. He returns to the kitchen and I move to the bar, observing his routine.

“You’re Muslim, right?” he asks, pointing at my floral hijab, or headscarf.

I smile and nod. We chat a bit about religion, homophobia and human rights.

“Meow, I love borderlands. Meow” — Maireid, undated

The first customer walks in at 7:59 a.m.

Butterfield is a friendly barista, rare in this town of too-cool-for-you hipster cafes. He chats and laughs, and knows most of the clientele by name or order.

“Large soy latte?” he asks a customer. “And do you want your apple thing?”

A few customers come in for some a quick cup of Joe to go.

“Large coffee, please.”

“Nonfat hot cocoa to go.”

“Do you guys sell coffee, like in a bag?” asks a customer with dreads. They don’t. She walks out empty-handed.

But most customers at Borderlands aren’t on the go. They find a seat and make themselves at home.

“Cheap eats + drinks plus no internet or music = pure genius.” — Erin, undated

Borderlands is unique in more ways than one. Most Internet addicts — like myself — are shocked to learn that the cafe does not provide Wi-Fi.

“We’re not anti-computer or anything,” manager Jude Feldman assured me, gladly offering the employee Wi-Fi code. “We just want to foster socialization.”

The lack of Wi-Fi began as an experiment, Beatts said.

“I just wanted to try to do something a little different. It’s not a social statement or ‘Internet bad.’”

“A lot of people like it,” he added, then paused. “Well, not a whole lot of undergrads, but a lot of postgrads.”

Borderlands is also a no-music establishment. The quiet helps facilitate conversation and creates a social space, according to Beatts.

The no-Wi-Fi, no-music vibe doesn’t seem to deter any customers. In fact, almost everyone here is buried deep in a book, Kindle or magazine, happily undisturbed.

“Borderlands is a small happiness in this rushed city” — Elizabeth Ramos, 9/28/12

Except for a light morning rush, it’s consistently quiet in the cafe. At 9 a.m. there are three folks seated inside, sipping coffee and minding their own business.

Outside, the morning commute begins and I gaze out the window, listening to the soft sounds of cars and commuters whizzing by.

It’s hard sitting still. I walk around, flip through some magazines and order a non-fat cappuccino, dry, and a poppy-seed muffin. Not bad.

By 11 I’ve read the latest New Yorker and The Atlantic front to back.

I stare out the window again. I count six mothers pushing strollers.

A woman sits down next to me. She takes her shoes off carelessly, crosses her legs and drops three large binders on the table. She’s practically buried in paper. As she flips a page, I catch a glimpse of the text: Salter-Harris fractures. What the heck is that?

Beatts walks by. He wants to know how I’m doing.

“Good. Just working.”

“I’ve spent the entire day here before,” he says, perhaps amused by my 14-hour assignment. “But I was getting paid.” He chuckles.

“I’d like this bookstore much better if it sold my book.” — Anonymous, undated

A couple of times during the day, I wander over to the bookstore directly attached to the cafe.

According to Beatts, it’s the largest science fiction specialty bookshop in the world. It houses over 14,000 titles.

“We take a very inclusive definition of science fiction,” Beatts said when I asked if he carries popular tween novels like “Twilight.”

“We don’t carry things like Star Trek books and Star Wars books, and we don’t carry anything that is basically a property that derives from other media, particularly film and television.”

Nestled on Valencia and 19th streets, Borderlands celebrated its 15-year anniversary this November. Beatts moved the shop from Hayes Valley 12 years ago, and it’s been a neighborhood staple for science fiction and fantasy geeks ever since.

These days, Borderlands is an anomaly, one of the few remaining independent bookstores in the Mission.

Even beloved shops like Adobe Books and Forest Books are struggling to stay alive as online retailers and rent hikes squeeze businesses out.

Beatts hopes to capitalize on potential sales as the book market dwindles and expects to carry mysteries in the next year or so. But he acknowledges he works in a dying business.

“E-books are much more economical,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s unrealistic to think that in 200 years, we’re going to be cutting down trees, grinding them up, putting ink on the product and then driving [them] around the country for people to read them. It’s tremendously inefficient.”

“How are you still alive, then?”

“I’m stubborn,” he said bluntly.

“[Borderlands] is a specialty [shop] and we’re quite good at it. And my barometer of success is … if I’m not buying Top Ramen by the case, I’m doing OK.”

Later in the day, I approach two gentlemen lurking in the back of the bookstore. One is holding three paperbacks.

“You still buy books?” I ask.

“I love books,” he answers. “It’s satisfying buying [them].”

“I love you beautiful nerds” — LK, undated

At 11:33 a.m., an interesting character plops down on the vintage leather chair to my right.

She’s a sight to see, with blue tights, black UGG boots, a fluffy pink hat, a brown coat, a blue scarf and a bright floral backpack.

“Can I take your photo for my story?” I ask.

“No.”

I try to sneak a picture anyway, but the sun is too bright in her direction. She reapplies her lip gloss and pulls out “Spanish Essentials for Dummies.” I decide to leave her en paz.

At 11:47, the silence is disturbed when a mother walks in with three young boys.

“You got bottled water?” she asks.

The youngest child isn’t satisfied with the order. “Milk! I want milk, I want milk,” he yells.

“Can I have steamed milk?” another one squeaks.

When the drinks arrive at the bar, the eldest yells, “Cheers,” before belting, “Kumbaya, my Lord” on the way out.

Rascals, I think.

And it’s quiet again.

“Shit’s awesome, I’ll be back” — Eli, 9/18/11 

By 12:30 p.m., the expected lunch rush is nowhere to be seen — or heard. Two girls walk in, read the menu, deliberate, then walk out.

“Pretty quiet morning, huh?” Feldman asks Z’ev Jenerik, who just started his shift at the cafe.

At 12:47 p.m., a peculiar man wearing pink shorts and a sleeveless yellow top walks in.

“Be careful who you let in,” he yells eerily at the front of the cafe. “Boom boom boom.”

He walks out. The customers glance around, puzzled. Apparently, we weren’t careful enough.

“Jude, I told you to tell your dad not to visit you at work,” Beatts jokes to ease the tension. “It makes everyone uncomfortable.”

A few customers chuckle.

“Ah, the colorful Mission,” someone sighs in the back.

“I like this place a lot — may I suggest you start offering yogurt + granola?” — Anonymous, undated

On the menu at Borderlands Cafe: “meats and cheeses” (sopressata, dry salami, gouda, provolone, cheddar, jack, turkey, Swiss) and “other tasty bits” (pesto pasta salad, soup). The two specialties: “North Beach” (mozzarella and tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, dry salami) and “The Jessica” (veggies and dip plate).

I get hungry reading the menu, so I order a non-fat latte and a cheese bagel with light cream cheese.

I consider another muffin, but I’m trying to watch my figure.

“Amazing peanut butter chocolate cookies” – Cookie Monster, undated

A lunchtime rush — albeit light — finally arrives at 1:30 p.m. The tip jar fills up.

At 1:45, two men sit down at a window nearby. I listen in.

“My girlfriend loves Christmas. She asks me, ‘Aren’t you excited,’ and I say, ‘No … I’m not excited for shopping, or even the giving,’” one of them complains.

“My nephew … my parents say they’re not going to give him 800 presents this year. But he gets 799.”

His friend laughs.

I grow bored of his complaints and walk around to snap some photos.

“No pictures,” an elderly woman tells me firmly, pointing my camera away.

I apologize.

Another customer walks in, places an order and pulls out a credit card. Borderlands is cash-only, the barista informs him.

“You got an ATM machine?”

Yes. He collects his cash and pays.

Meanwhile, another delivery man walks in with yet another a white box. I read the logo: “Kerri Kreations.” I quickly Google the name. It’s a Santa Cruz-based cookie company.

Yum.

I begin to reconsider that muffin. And perhaps a cookie.

“Dear borderlands, I guess you caught me! My favorite part of coming here day after day is the underage staff or barely legal? — Seymour, undated

It’s nearly dead quiet between 3 and 5 p.m. I apply to some internships online, peeking up every once in a while to observe the scene.

One customer has been here nearly as long as I have. Must be a writer.

There are about 10 people in the cafe, some on computers, some reading books. The man to my left is writing in a moleskin.

The girl to my right answers her phone quietly and whispers to the caller: “It’s like a library in here.”

It’s 5:20 p.m. and the sun is setting. It gets dark so fast these days.

Screw it. I order another poppy-seed muffin.

Outside, buses whiz past and commuters bring life to the street. Young couples walk by, peer into the window and stroll along.

There’s a steady flow of customers coming in now, most of them grabbing a cup on the go.

“Some people just want coffee, coffee now!” I hear Feldman complain to Jenerik near the bar.

“Thank you for the Sunday reprieve” — Jeff, undated

By 7 p.m., the cafe staff are lightly tidying up. I hear Feldman singing in the kitchen, her soft voice drowned by the clattering dishes in the sink.

A young couple takes a seat nearby. They spend nearly an hour stalking friends on Facebook. I wonder how they have access to the Internet.

“Wanna get out of here?” the boyfriend eventually asks. The girl nods. They walk out hand in hand.

I approach the bar to ask Jenerik how he’s doing.

“It’s getting towards the end of night. Nice and relaxing.” He says he’s been working as a barista for about a year and a half.

He returns to his cleaning duties, wishing customers a good night as they exit.

By 7:58 p.m. there are two of us in the cafe.

Feldman asks if I want to stick around for after-hours clean-up.

I politely decline. It’s 8 p.m. and nearly bedtime for this grandma.

4 Comments

  1. TinyTim

    Why do we always have to suffer through a food reviewer’s rant about the parking situation (“…And I can’t find parking in the Mission District.”) Ditch the car–sell it to someone far from the Bay Area, like Montana–and take BART, walk, run bike, MUNize or skate to your destination. You’re less than half my age and you can’t shake the parking fixation! Read on public transit and you’ll be able to figure out what Salter-Harris fractures are.
    And “…I consider another muffin, but I’m trying to watch my figure.” If you had walked or exerted yourself on the way back, you would have burned up those additional calories.

    • Blurpy

      If having to read a few sentences about someone else’s parking troubles is your idea of “suffering,” TinyTim, you’re not doing too bad!

      • TinyTim

        Actually the real suffering is shared by us all, as global warming is surging full-exhaust ahead. Needless driving and circling around searching for parking spaces is a great contributor to GW.

  2. suki

    I love Borderlands and what I love most about them- other than buying books, the awesome book selling staff and the owner, a man of integrity, is the fact that they don’t play LOUD music. Bless them.

Comments are closed.