When wandering my neighborhood of the West Village, I sometimes think that it has one of the largest concentrations of coffee shops in the city, numbering over a dozen. Sure, there are big chains like Bluestone Lane and Starbucks, but these are in the minority. The neighborhood’s fabric is composed of indie coffee shops that either stand alone, or are links in small local chains.
When the epidemic started ramping up, say around March 10 or so, many of these coffee shops remained resolutely open, especially the local ones, even after rules prohibited sitting down or congregating in them. But gradually in the latter part of the month, these places went down one-by-one.
The Elk on West 10th Street was one of the first to go, with Cafe Panino Much Gusto on Hudson Street not far behind. Even the late-night Think Coffee up near 14th Street on Eight Avenue, a pit stop for revelers returning form Meatpacking clubs, had closed by the last week in March.
One of the last holdouts, the original branch of Joe Coffee on Waverly and Gay streets, shuttered at the end of last week. Meanwhile Oslo and Birch had closed, while Blackstone Coffee Roasters remained open, but who knows for how long? The branch of Starbucks on Sheridan Square remains the only one of several within a mile’s walk that remain open, though it’s a resource of last resort for the lover of the small local establishment.
So the pickings have been mighty slim in the West Village. This is highly ironic, because this bucolic neighborhood of stately brownstones and handsome public squares was settled in the 1830s and 40s by the wealthy fleeing epidemics of yellow fever and cholera in Lower Manhattan. And what was nearly two centuries ago considered a refuge from disease, the West Village is now a place from which the wealthier residents are now fleeing to their out-of-town residences, in the Hamptons and elsewhere. Indeed, I’ve watched as the neighborhood has emptied out over the last three weeks, leaving unused parking spaces, closed retail stores, and uncrowded supermarkets.
But one standout coffee bar persists near Abingdon Square: Rebel Coffee on Hudson Street just north of 12th. Founded in 2016, it has a serious air about its coffee — now serving up Sweetleaf, but previously Stumptown — and a whimsical air with the decor. There’s a cardboard moose on the wall and some hilarious throw pillows on the couch, including one of a Wookiee as the Mona Lisa.
Well, the couch has been turned around and the chairs stacked up, but owner Anthony Lak is still in business. When the place is open, from 8 a.m. till 4 p.m. each day, the door is generally left open to permit easy access without touching any knobs. The pastry case also now sadly sits empty. Once it was filled with croissants, cookies, and Du’s Donuts, though the place never fooled around with twee little sandwiches or breakfast burritos. Still, it’s possible to get espresso beverages expertly prepared, and drip coffee, too. As an added bonus, the staff puts the milk in for you.
When I pass by, it’s often as dormant as the rest of the neighborhood, but other times it seems quite busy, with a spaced out line of people waiting to get coffee. Apparently New Yorkers must continue to have their barista-made java — even devoid of pastries and the option to sit like a bump on a log in the cafe for as long as they want.
Regardless, it may not stay open either. According to Lak, the future is uncertain; it’s hard to predict the public’s willingness to go outside for an espresso fix. “We’re just going day to day,” he said. “You know, every day has been different.”