Barrington

I’m really going to miss Just Us! on Barrington Street.

I started working there in the autumn of 2004, when I was eighteen. As I recall, I did not make a good first impression. But with some effort, I convinced the manager of the time that I was worth retaining, and my life would not have unfolded the same way if I hadn’t.

I learned a lot at Barrington. I saw that the drudgery of customer service can transform into something wonderful when you’re blessed with the kind of coworkers I had there. I came to understand that making coffee can be an art form unto itself. I was introduced to enough music to last me the next ten years. I found myself part of an informal community built upon the place we all shared—Barrington Street, the hollowed-out core of Halifax past. The businesses that remained looked out for one another. And loved one another. The Granite Brewery, Ginger’s Tavern, Sam the Record Man, CD Plus, J.W. Doull’s, Just Us! Barrington. Moved, closed, closed, closed, moved, closed.

A little over two years after I started at Barrington I was offered a job as manager of the new Just Us! on Spring Garden Road. I helped open it and ran it for three years, and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the ways in which my time at Barrington shaped my approach to managing a cooperative business. One learns just as much from what doesn’t work in a given environment as what does; I knew what I’d appreciated as an employee at Barrington, and I also knew what I’d found frustrating. It’s my hope that I was able to emphasize the former and minimize the latter during my tenure as manager, but only my co-workers can judge whether I succeeded or not.

Back to Barrington, though. In the years since I quit my job at Spring Garden and moved to Montréal, I’ve always felt at home there in a way that I didn’t at “my” old café. Part of this certainly had to do with turnover. Within a year of my departure from Spring Garden, there was no one left on staff there with whom I’d worked. When Barrington closed yesterday, one of the baristas there had been there since before I left (if memory serves). That café retained staff like nobody’s business, and I could count on finding a familiar face there any day of the week. That means something in an environment where precarity is the norm and employment is transitory.

I held back from weighing in on the union drive at Spring Garden largely out of consideration for my friends and former co-workers still employed at Barrington who could have been negatively impacted by what I had to say. But they’ve all been laid off now, so.

Just Us! Coffee’s decision to close Barrington is astonishing insofar as it demonstrates a complete misreading of what has made the business what it is today. The cooperative would be nowhere without the loyal communities of customers it has worked to establish over the years. The co-op’s decision to close Barrington and destroy the community that frequents it less than a year after relocating it to a new and better space is simply astounding, particularly when coupled with the co-op’s decision to open a new Just Us! location in Dartmouth—in the King’s Wharf condo development—earlier this year.

The only business training I have comes from my time at Just Us!, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. But—it seems to me that if a branch you’ve been operating for the past nine years is losing money, perhaps you should try investing in strategies to make that branch profitable instead of sinking money into a new branch—which likely won’t be profitable for a year or more and, by virtue of its location, undermines the type of community engagement that (I thought) Just Us! has traditionally sought.

It’s disheartening to realize that values you once believed in are no more than a marketing strategy. If Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op really held to their trademarked motto, People and the Planet Before Profits™, Barrington would be open for business as usual this morning and the cooperative’s membership would be actively engaging with the baristas and staff there to find out what they needed to do to revitalize an unprofitable but deeply cherished café.

All good things come to an end, though. And whenever I hear Otis Redding, or Janis Joplin, or Thom Yorke, or the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away—I’ll think back to those years when I first learned what it means to be a part of a community. And I’ll be happy that I was there, then, with all of them.

Of High Horses →

Pat Martin:

They rode into Ottawa on their high horse of accountability, and all we have to show for it is the mess that horse left. They should take their Federal Accountability Act and run it through that horse and throw it on their roses for all the good it has ever done us.

Guy’s got a gift with words.

On Just Us!

In July 2010, I resigned my position as manager of Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-operative’s Spring Garden café over concerns I had with the co-operative’s senior management. While I stand by that decision and the reasons I gave the co-operative’s senior management and board for it at the time, I am not convinced that my experience from three years ago is relevant to the current situation. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, I intend to await the ruling of the Labour Board.

It is my sincere hope that this matter will be resolved amicably for all parties, and will furthermore act as a catalyst for increased involvement of café staff in the co-operative’s democratic structure, whether through the formation of a union under SEIU Local 2 or facilitated membership in the co-operative itself. The senior management at Just Us! have been given a chance to live up to the values that they have publicly championed over the past eighteen years, and as a former employee and member—and current investor—I encourage them to seize this opportunity.

Fine Arts

Tomorrow morning, I’m meeting with my university’s Dean of Fine Arts to discuss all of this.

The facts are these: between 15 and 20 per cent of the Fine Arts faculty’s $3.9 million non-salary and non-permanent budget will have been cut when Concordia’s 2013-14 fiscal year begins on May 1.

I had a thought after writing all of that. Last year, the provincial government here in Québec fined Concordia University (where I’m studying theatre) $2 million because of their overly generous severance pay to exiting senior administrators. The most recent of these, former president Judith Woodsworth, received a severance package totalling $703,000 when she was forced to resign in 2011.

Let me recap. The Faculty of Fine Arts will likely lose 25 course sections going into the 2013-2014 academic year for a total savings of $250,000. One disgraced administrator is valued at $703,000 plus a fine of $2 million.

Where are our priorities, honestly?

Message Failure →

According to pollster Nik Nanos, Canadians had a hard time getting excited about the War of 1812.

“What I thought was quite surprising was that things that affected the day-to-day lives of Canadians, like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the vote for women, had a significant amount of support in terms of something to celebrate,” Mr. Nanos said.

How is it at all suprising that the most meaningful historical events are those that still tangibly affect our lives in a positive way? Sometimes I wonder about pollsters.