The cappuccino milk steamed for one last day in the coffeehouse known to patrons as Hartford's living room.
"Love you," WNPR announcer Chion Wolf whispered to Virginia Iacobucci, the owner of La Paloma Sabanera.
After a tribute party Wednesday night with a medley of performers and poets — the kind of event that would only happen at La Paloma, customers said — people came back to Capitol Avenue's laidback café to hug Iacobucci and say goodbye to the "third place" in their lives, after work and home.
La Paloma officially ceased operations Thursday evening. Iacobucci said she could not reach a new lease agreement with the building's Boston-based landlord, with whom she often battled over the past five years.
The coffeehouse in the Frog Hollow neighborhood was a favorite spot for artists, writers and musicians, city politicians, and state employees who needed a sandwich and caffeine fix.
La Paloma also was a creative haven where new ideas percolated along with the coffee, patrons said. There were the after-hours writing sessions organized by aspiring novelists, nighttime storytelling, theater improv and political arguments.
Instrumental trio String Theorie is one of the local bands that got started on the La Paloma stage. During regular hours, that stage holds a couple of round tables, small enough for intimate chats or a solitary hour of sipping tea by the window.
"For a lot of us in the neighborhood, it's our home," said Joe Barber, 42, a Frog Hollow resident and Trinity College's director of community service and civic engagement.
"You come and be yourself," said Helder Mira, 38, an independent filmmaker who has shot scenes at La Paloma and struck deep friendships there. "Come up with an idea, talk to Virginia, and you have your film screening, you have your band performing ...
"If anything, it just brought out the spirit and reminded us of what makes people in Hartford great," said Mira, his voice shaky. "It's tough ... It's going to be tough to find another place like that."
La Paloma, named after an endangered pigeon in Puerto Rico, first opened in June 2004 as a café/bookstore/jazz hangout run by the Cotto family and former co-owner Luis Edgardo Cotto, who was elected to the Hartford City Council in late 2007.
Soon after, the Cottos sold the business to Iacobucci, a La Paloma customer who was a fundraiser and marketer for nonprofits. She kept the name and reopened the coffeehouse six months later in mid-2008.
On the corner of Capitol Avenue and Babcock Street, Iacobucci built on the idea of La Paloma as a community space, patrons said.
"There are three regular monthly events here that are all losing their home," said Julia Pistell, who started the "Syllable" reading series where writers share their work. "Other People's Stories," a storytelling series, and the "The Ear Cave" radio listening event were also held on special nights recently.
La Paloma has loyal customers, Iacobucci said, but rent has been "too high." It doesn't help that a Dunkin' Donuts is down the street.
Since last summer, Iacobucci has opposed a state proposal to block nearby Flower Street to pedestrian traffic for the CTfastrak busway. In May, a hearing officer ruled in favor of keeping the street open to pedestrians and bicyclists.
"Our profit margins are small," said Iacobucci, whose lease expires Sunday. One and a half full-time employees are typically on the payroll. "We don't have the deep pockets."
For a while, there was hope that a prospective buyer might take over the business, she said, but that faded when the rent could not be renegotiated with the landlord. "The rent is just too high," said Iacobucci, who declined to specify but said the cost is "25 percent higher than it should be."
At one point, city officials discussed with her the possibility of moving the café to a space downtown, Iacobucci said Thursday, but that would have required start-up money she didn't have.
Maribel La Luz, spokeswoman for Mayor Pedro Segarra, released a statement later Thursday saying that the city has been "consistently engaged" in trying to keep La Paloma from closing.
"We've offered assistance with relocation, with façade improvements and inventory, both with the current owner and any prospective buyers," La Luz said. "Our objective has always been to keep La Paloma open to ensure an uninterrupted transition in management and service to the community."
On Wednesday, the La Paloma party that Pistell organized drew kids, twentysomethings, grandparents and nearly everyone in between. About 500 people showed up at some point throughout the night, which included 40 performances, Pistell said.
Outside, the chalkboard sidewalk sign that usually advertised the day's lunch special instead featured the outline of a pigeon spreading its wings, above a handwritten message: "Gracias."
La Paloma "meant so much to many of us for so long," said Reinaldo Rojas, 39, a city resident and UConn doctoral candidate in social work. "I was here for the first closing. Tears in my eyes; I couldn't believe it. Then Virginia took it over."
"The last couple of months have been particularly exhausting," said Iacobucci, who is now looking for a job and some rest. Closing "still seems surreal."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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