May 1, 2008

Downturn impacts SV

Posted in silicon valley tagged , , , at 4:25 pm by siliconmom

Demise of the Corner Café
By Alison RG van Diggelen
From Silicon Valley Biz Ink column archives, 2002

When I was over in London this summer, a friend, who recently left Silicon Valley for the greener pastures of Ascot, asked me how things were in the valley these days. Good and bad, I said.

After months and months of huge job cuts dominating front-page news, I told her that silver lining stories are now beginning to bud. Perhaps it’s because the downturn has been with us long enough that we crave some good news. Every paper has stories about shorter commutes, easier hiring, reduced house prices, quality of life improvements.

But really! We should be ashamed of ourselves. It’s a little soon to be making hoopla over our dearly departed. They may be in deepest Demoines but I mean their bodies are still warm. They’re probably still wired to the web, still in touch with the valley in one way or another. The way some press stories read, it’s as though those fleeing Silicon Valley fell off the edge of the earth. OK, Siliconians are not renowned for their empathy, (we’re too busy being creative), but still. For all we know, those with pink slips may have looked over their shoulders on their way out of the valley and heard us cheering, reveling in the extra room on the road now that their car is no longer jostling for position on Highway 85 every morning. Hey, shouldn’t we be showing a little more respect?

By contrast, London is still thriving thanks to a huge consumer spending boom. As I shopped with about half of the European Community in Covent Garden one Saturday morning, I kept recalling the independent café in our San Jose neighborhood, which folded this summer. It’s been sitting empty and forlorn for months. There is no silver lining in sight here, just a gradual destruction of its “Down-Under” memory as creditors come by each month to seize more fittings.

Two years ago, I was delighted when this independent coffee shop moved into the neighborhood. I rallied to support this one-woman business as she tried to swim against the tidal wave of Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee. I’d watch her red-rimmed eyes as she frothed the milk for my cafe latte and looked around the empty tables. I wondered how many cups of coffee she had to sell each day to pay the rent.

I got in the habit of going in just before my son started school around the corner. By June, her anxious manner had melted into a jolly disposition. She’d say to my five-year old, “Come on back and let’s make your mama’s latte.” He would trot round beside her and emerge moments later with a beaming smile waving a blue and white sticker or a shiny new Frisbee showing the coffee shop logo.

The coffee shop supported local charity events, turning up at the Almaden Times Classic 10K with balloons for the kids and free coffee for all. (Funnily enough there wasn’t a Starbucks cup in sight.)

One Saturday the kids and I cycled from our house along the creek path and refreshed our tired bodies with strawberry milkshakes and ham croissants from the café before we journeyed back. We sat at the table by the window and the kids counted the fluffy gray Koalas peeking out from make believe trees, their branches festooned with silver tinsel, around us. That was just days before she served her last cup of coffee.

On our return from London we went to check out the coffee shop. “What will happen to the Koalas?” the kids ask.

We peer in through the plate glass window. The trees and Koalas were gone. All that remains of them are a handful of plastic leaves strewn across the gray vinyl floor and some loose strands of silver tinsel. Wooden wall cupboards gap open; a couple of coffee bean sacks lie limp where the coffee roaster used to be. On the counter top sits a half empty bottle of Calistoga. Near the counter lies a computer box, its side ripped off, a mangle of electronic innards exposed.

We turn away, my teeth catching my lower lip, as the kids bombarded me with questions, “But why?” “Will the Koalas be OK?”

The local merchants tutt-tutt and gossip. The tenant was behind in the rent, disappeared. “We’re fed up being next to an empty shell,” they say. They’d like to see a Starbucks go in. It would be good for business.
About the author: Alison van Diggelen is founder and editor of She lives in San Jose with her husband and American born children.

© Siliconmom.


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