Ray Carbone - The smell of downtown cafes fades

  • Published in Columns

When Laconia’s Black Cat Café first opened in the early 1990s, it was a big deal.

It began as a “cigar bar” (remember those?) with nice food, a quiet atmosphere, good coffee and drinks.

But it was the cozy, casual style that was unique to the Lakes Region. It looked something like a Starbucks – an “internet café” (remember those?) – with better-than-average coffee, free wifi and a “take-your-time” attitude ...

When Laconia’s Black Cat Café first opened in the early 1990s, it was a big deal.

It began as a “cigar bar” (remember those?) with nice food, a quiet atmosphere, good coffee and drinks.

But it was the cozy, casual style that was unique to the Lakes Region. It looked something like a Starbucks – an “internet café” (remember those?) – with better-than-average coffee, free wifi and a “take-your-time” attitude that stood in stark contrast with the many great Lakes Region diners – or even the Caesar’s Pizza store that was next door at the time.

This was the kind of place you’d see in Boston, or maybe Concord – but not in downtown Laconia, people said. Could such a place survive in a working class northern New England city?

It turned out that it could. The Black Cat developed a small but devoted following. People liked – no, LOVED – this place located in the old Romanesque train station by Veterans Square.

The only problem — for some folks — was the cigar smoke. I can remember sneaking in at times when I thought smokers were less likely to be there, like late mornings or early afternoons.

Finally, the cigar aficionado who’d opened the Black Cat sold it.

The new owners emphasized bakery goods. But unfortunately things didn’t work out for them. If memory serves right, they were gone in less than a year.

That’s when Kinney and Jean O’Rourke purchased the place. The couple was already known in the area, and the O’Rourke’s immediately returned to the original business model. But with a few small changes: “The Black Cat has gone smokeless!” they said — and they changed their kitty’s logo cigar into a food platter.

The atmosphere was again friendly and inviting. The coffee and food were even better than before. Most importantly, Kinney was a natural-born restaurateur. His warm, generous nature and quick Irish wit added a friendly spark to the downtown. You’d look for an excuse to stop by the Black Cat.

Then ANOTHER café opened.

“Two?! Downtown? No way. One of them gotta die.”

The Awakenings Espresso Cafe moved onto Canal Street, across from the post office. It was operated by folks who had a deep passion and knowledgeable about gourmet coffees. And if their storefront space was not quite as cozy at the Black Cat’s, the atmosphere was friendly and loose here as well. Over the years, lots of people made a stop into Awakenings a regular part of their day.

For several years, the Lake City had two “big city” cafés operating in its downtown, less than two blocks from one another.

In fact, Kinney at the Black Cat was enjoying his new gig so much that he decided to expand. He wanted to take over even more of the beautiful old train station and add a “fine dining” area.

But it didn’t happen. Kinney ran into problems getting his expansion idea rolling. Not long afterwards, he finally sold out. (Tragically, not long afterwards, he died when what was supposed to be a simple operation ran into complications… You can read his loving obituary @ http://currentobituary.com/ShowObit.aspx?id=75445&member_id=14)

The next Black Cat owners had, for a long time, operated a popular Mexican eatery in Weirs Beach and probably thought they’d repeat their success here.

Then, we noticed both businesses are gone.

The Black Cat operators closed their doors recently and current Awakenings owner Jane Bergeron decided to move her business to a larger space, out near “McIntyre Circle” (by the supermarkets and Wal-Mart in Gilford).

Of course, you can still get a decent cup of coffee downtown. The Downtown Deli serves a great brew made by the Woodshed Coffee Roasting Co. of Laconia. And the Village Bakery is still very popular among the local on-the-go café drinkers.

Maybe someone will open a new café downtown – but right now, it’s clear something is missing. There’s no more of Kinney’s sly grin and wonderfully wry sense of humor. There are no more exotic brews to sip while looking out at the post office parking lot crowd, or enjoying a warm day sitting in the outside patio behind Awakenings.

Yes, something is gone from downtown Laconia. And it’s not just about the coffee.

(P.S. “It’s not just about the coffee” is the Awakenings’ slogan… The Lake City’s loss is Gilford’s gain.)

(Ray Carbone is a long-time Lakes Region journalist and his company published “The Lakes Region of New Hampshire: Four Seasons, Countless Memories,” the first book of photos and essays of the area. This article is from his new blog dedicated to the book’s unique vision of the Lakes Region, http://lakesregionofnewhampshire.blogspot.com)