May 2010 – Coffee Shop Chronicles

I walked into Jitters for the first time on a cold February night in 1994. I was met at the door with the deep aroma of freshly ground coffee. Inside, the old pub feel of the mahogany bar offered a sense of warmth and welcome. Older folks chatted quietly at vintage wooden tables, while younger people played Scrabble.  A few book lovers wrapped themselves in a cup of java and a good read. Jitters was clearly a multi-generational place to gather. And I thought to myself, “This is what community looks like.”

Walking into Jitters that first time, was also nostalgic. The aroma of coffee took me back to my childhood in the 60s and 70s when my mother took us to visit her German homeland – a place where coffee was rich, chocolate was dark, and bread had more sustenance than the loaves of white fluff she found grocery shelves in America. For my mother, those coffee shops were places where she could reconnect with friends and family that in some cases she had not seen in years. It was a place where she could come home again.

In the 16 years since it opened, Jitters has grown. Today, its space has more than doubled. You’re as likely to find people connected to the internet as reading books. And there’s a bit more bustle, since Jitters is decidedly the place to meet in Eagle River. But the feel is the same – it’s a place that fosters a sense of belonging.

Jitters has developed an almost cult-like following. It has a Facebook page where fans wax eloquent about the coffee, the baristas, and their stories and reminisces.

In one post to Facebook, Trish Jenkins-Gottschall wrote, “Jitters was where all us military wives gathered to cry over deployments, cheer over new babies, unwind away from the kids or bring our kids for a little hot cocoa…we miss you AND each other as we’ve moved on…thanks Jitters for bringing us together!”

Jenkins-Gottschall now lives in Montgomery, Alabama and like many of those who have come and left the area, she misses Jitters. “In Eagle River, someone was always carrying around a Jitters cup,” she said. “In the darkness of the long winters when we needed to get out, Jitters was a cozy place to meet.”

Shortly after Jitters opened, my writer’s group began meeting there. Over the years, we’ve published books, raised our children, and celebrated grandbabies. And along with the happier stories, we’ve also grieved at the life’s harder moments; the loss of a parent, the failure of a marriage, the hurt of wounded friendships. Many of life’s dramas have unfolded around the tables of this place.

Meanwhile, dozens of young people have held their first jobs at Jitters. My son, Erik Johnson, worked as a barista during high school and college. He remembers the three years he worked at Jitters as a time when he got to know his hometown in a personal way. He remembers how people talked to him about their day and their lives as he waited on them in the drive-through.

“I learned that you don’t want to talk too much before they get their drinks,” he laughed. “Jitters was a social network in this community before there was such a thing as Facebook.”

Jitters’ founder and general manager, Dennis Johnson, says he enjoys hearing people’s stories. Some of his favorites include how people first met at Jitters and are how some are now celebrating anniversaries. One couple was even married at the coffee shop earlier this spring. Heather Carroll and Lance Flint held their wedding in front of the fireplace at Jitters on March 13 of this year. While they didn’t actually meet at Jitters, Heather grew up in Eagle River and found that the coffee shop had just the right sense of intimacy for a small wedding.

A family run business, the coffee shop opened in 1994 and expanded in 2005. Today it continues to draw in the devoted and make converts of the curious.

Kent and Melissa Alger, long-time Alaskans and Eagle River residents reflected on their favorite place to congregate.

Kent said, “It’s the kind of place that knits the sinew of a community together.”

Melissa agreed. “Other than church, this is where fellowship happens in this town,” she said. “Joy, sorrow, laughter, tears – the continuity of life happens here. Jitters is about bringing people together on a deeper lever. It has nothing to do with the coffee.”

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