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Nina's owner seeks to build community at St. Paul shop

3 May 2022

June Berkowitz has tried other things.

An English major in college, the White Bear Lake native is an aspiring novelist (she has two books in progress) and was an elementary school teacher in St. Paul for 13 years. She’s also had a clothing shop, an organic juice bar and launched an incubator for entrepreneurs.

But the longtime owner of Nina’s Coffee Cafe, an iconic coffee shop at the corner of Selby and Western avenues in St. Paul, keeps falling back to coffee. Or, more accurately, to what the coffee shop creates.

“It’s never been about the coffee. I drink one cup of coffee or a latte per day,” she said. “It’s all about community.”

Berkowitz recently tucked into an out-of-the-way table in her shop with Eye On St. Paul and talked about her nearly two decades in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, how she got her start and a near-ghostly experience in Nina’s historic building.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: Were you Nina’s first owner?

A: No. I was a teacher in St. Paul, [13 years] at Prosperity Heights [Elementary School] on the East Side. And I just knew that I probably wasn’t going to retire in that job.

One thing that I loved doing every morning was going to different coffee shops. So I started researching things. Every year I would go to small coffeeshops and take notes of what I liked and what I didn’t. I visited 90 different coffee shops.

I’d always talked about following your dreams with my students. They would remind me, every time they hadn’t heard me talk about it for a while. They’d leave notes in my box. Or they’d bring me coffee cups from someplace.

Q: How did you find this place?

A: When I made the decision that I was going to leave teaching, I told my colleagues that this is going to be my last year and I’m getting a coffee shop in St. Paul. And I started talking to my students about it [in September 2004]. I had actually been looking at another spot when I heard about this one. Nobody knew it was going to be for sale.

I started spending time here, correcting papers. Scouting. Then I decided to bring my students here [to a poetry reading]. Later, I sat them down and said, “OK, this is the place. Do you think it’s too big?”

One of my sixth-grade students, she said, “You are all about building community. You will build community here. You will fill this place.”

Q: Did you finish out the school year teaching?

A: I did. And then I bought the shop. [My students and I] spent the rest of the year learning about margins, about ordering.

Q: What was it about this place that drew you?

A: St. Paul, this area, number one. Number two, that front door. There was something about being on the corner and that door. I believe that doors are an invitation.

Q: Since then, you’ve tried a bunch of different businesses. Tell me about those.

A: Selby Avenue has been very near and dear to my heart. And it’s been changing since I got here. I wanted to just keep that evolution going, so I opened a clothing store [with my daughter]. And we put it over on Selby and Snelling. But it didn’t have any storefront. So I wanted to put it [closer to Nina’s].

Then there was Naked Nina’s [organic fresh juices]. We built space out beautifully. But, after a while, I said, “You know, I don’t think we were ready.” It was expensive. Minnesota is cold and we had all-organic, made-to-order juices.

I also had the space downstairs [once occupied by Garrison Keillor’s bookstore]. I put in an incubator for entrepreneurs. That didn’t work, but it was a great space. I am addicted to the city and its spaces.

Q: Through all of this, even a pandemic, this shop endures. Why?

A: Neighbors, customers. But also, my staff. They’re like my angels.

Q: Do you see yourself continuing to do this? Or are you interested in other things?

A: I would really like to write my books. I am a member of the Coven cooperative next door. I can go over there any time and write. I started the books to fulfill a promise to my principal [at Prosperity Heights].

Q: You told me hundreds of people have said they’ve written books here, studied for bar exams. Studied Chinese. Is there a creative energy in this old building?

A: Yes. Can I tell you a really fun story? I knew that there were ghosts here and I knew that I was going to see one someday.

[One winter morning] I unlocked the door and I see this beautiful woman in a white, white cape. She looked angelic. She was descending the stairs. And she said to me, “June, I’m so happy you’re here.”

And I thought, wait a minute, this person is really here. [laughs] Turns out, she lives [in the building] and had gone out to get the newspaper and was locked out. One of my bakers’ delivery person, who didn’t speak English, saw her and put her in here. He knew that somebody was coming soon.

So, there you go. [laughs] They’re real.

This post was originally published on this site

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