La Paloma Sabanera, which closes Friday, was a lot of things, but it was never your regular coffeehouse/bookstore.
It wasn't that the staff — led by affable co-owner Luis Edgardo Cotto — knew your favorite coffee. Nor was it the public art that decorated the walls inside and out, or the jazz concerts, movie nights, poetry readings and open mikes.
La Paloma — ironically, named for an endangered pigeon found in Puerto Rico — was one of the few places in Hartford — maybe in all of Connecticut — where the clientele was mixed. Opened in mid-2004 by the Cottos — Luis and his sisters, Carmen, Cinthia, Leticia and Melanie — the small shop was home to neighborhood children doing homework in the lending library upstairs, city activists intent on changing the status quo, city politicos intent on preserving it, and a rabble of others who found the Yauco Selecto coffee strong, the music bracing and the company challenging.
You never knew who you'd see at La Paloma, and in a segregated world, that was beyond refreshing.
At the center was Luis, newly elected Hartford city council member and soon-to-be new father. He has a background in finance, and he knew for months that things were going south. A buck-fifty for coffee does not make the rent, but he'd already raised the coffee price twice, and couldn't bring himself to do it again. Nor would he charge for most of the shop's events. Coffee and culture are for everyone, so the most the Cottos would do was set a basket on the counter and announce that people could give what they wanted.
You'd think, given patrons' appreciation of the shop's vibe, that we'd have coughed it up, but so many times Luis ended up paying performers out of his own pocket. He jokingly called it "supporting the arts," but supporting the arts took its toll, as did meeting payroll and paying the light bill, and all the rest of the myriad headaches that accompany small businesses.
The Cottos kept it going as long as they could, knowing they were providing an oasis for a troubled city. Not long ago, a jazz musician got sick and canceled her La Paloma concert, so Cotto went online to try to find a place to redirect people coming to Hartford that night for jazz. He found next to nothing.
It's someone else's turn now. The establishment's been sold, and will reopen in the spring. Good luck to the new owner in re-creating the old vibe, or in building a better one. We who loved the place await, fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, Cotto is plenty busy. He closes the shop, rather quickly takes his oath as a member of Hartford's Court of Common Council, and then welcomes his second child — a son — the week after that. One staff member is going to school at Southern Connecticut State University to study graphic design. Another will join Cotto on his staff.
Starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, the Cottos will open the door to well-wishers for a potluck dinner. Bring a bottle. If well-wishers bring instruments, music may break out. As Luis Cotto says, they'll go out as they came in: organically. What happens, happens.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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