“It’s coming on Christmas; they’re cutting down trees….” Libby hummed along to the Joni Mitchell tune piping through the shop sound system as she placed the last ornament on the tree for the front window display. As she stood back to survey her work, the delicious smells of orange cranberry scones filled the air. Her best friend and baker, Artie, was quickly filling the dessert case for today’s customers.
“It’s a bit off center, just like you.” Artie called across the shop. She was wiping her hands on her ever-present apron as she came and stood by Libby.
“What is? The tree?”
“No, the star.”
Immediately Libby saw, as usual, that she was correct. You could always count on Artie to point out any imperfections. She called it the curse of her Indian grandmother, Sahana. Libby considered it a blessing as no book or coffee mug was ever out of place with Artie around. Jokingly, Libby told her that she always had job security between her eye for details and her gift of keeping the dessert case full.
Adjusting the star, Libby was pleased with the overall look. It was always a walk down memory lane each year as she unpacked the antique Christmas ornaments, lovingly fingering each one as she found the perfect spot for it to hang. Originally, these ornaments graced their family tree, but since her dad helped buy this place, they both agreed it would be a fitting shrine for them to grace the tree for Books and Beans. Libby had dreamed since her teenage years of having a shop where two of her favorite things existed together – books and coffee. Her dad had always told her if you are going to dream, dream big. The day of the grand opening was one of the happiest days of Libby’s life. She had found the perfect cozy spot in the heart of East Nashville, the latest hotspot in Music City. Riverside Village was always full of musicians and artists looking for a break, as well as college students from one of the universities in town. There was never a lack of foot traffic.
“What did I tell ya, Libby girl? Dream big, work hard and anything is possible.” He whispered in her ear that day. This month it will be three years since his passing. Three years since she had heard his laugh or argued over their two favorite football teams. It still felt like it happened yesterday. No one had ever even heard of Coronavirus, or Covid-19 as it came to be known, when a pandemic spread across the globe in 2020. Libby could not believe it when her dad had tested positive. They both felt it seemed nothing more than the flu, but when he had to be admitted to the hospital, they both knew it was something far more serious. Libby was not even able to be with him in person. She could only talk to him on the phone. Even up until the end he kept saying he would be home pestering her again in no time. The hospital allowed her to mask up and visit through the window the night he passed. That was the night her life changed forever. She was now completely alone. Libby’s mother had passed away when she was a baby, and Reggie had raised Libby on his own and on a policeman’s salary. Reggie had one sister, but they were never close, so it had always just been the two of them. She had spent the rest of the pandemic in a daze of tears, sleep, and more tears. It was the potential loss of her little shop that had finally pulled her out of the vortex of grief and gave her the motivation to keep moving. Even though the store had to remain closed, she opened an online bookstore and somehow managed to keep things moving until the world re-opened slowly in 2021.
Snapping back into the present, Libby turned and walked toward the coffee shop in the store. Artie was looking at her with that scrunched up face she had when she was impatient.
“I have been talking to you for five minutes….I was asking about today’s special. Where were you? Dreaming about Mr. Wonderful again?” Artie was rearranging the creamer station for the umpteenth time.
A frown crossed Libby’s face at the mention of Mr. Wonderful. That would be Peter, but as it turned out, he was more Mr. Unfaithful. It took Libby a month before she confessed to Artie that the two had parted ways. In hindsight, her heart really wasn’t in the relationship anyway, and when she saw a photo of Peter with a young blonde at a social function in the Nashville Signature magazine for the rich, she broke things off. She wasn’t sure why he had ever pursued her in the first place. Their two worlds were as different as night and day. At any rate, today she did not need to be reminded AGAIN how she had misjudged another guy. This time of year was already hard enough. She missed her dad every day but especially during the holidays. He always let her cry, rant, and rave about what a loser X guy was, and never once said, “I told you so.” He always seemed to have an uncanny way of zeroing in on a guy’s flaws. He was forever trying to fix her up with the sons of his best buddies. It had been an ongoing lighthearted struggle between the two. Reggie thought all the guys she dated were arrogant jerks and she always thought the guys her dad tried to fix her up with were goofball nerds. Oh, how she missed those arguments.
“NO…. I was actually thinking about how the tree could use a little more sparkle. I may zip out at lunch and get another string or two of twinkle lights.” Libby replied heading over to the cashier’s stand in the bookstore side.
“Um hmm…right.” Artie replied as she headed back into the tiny kitchen. They only served pastries and coffee drinks, but the place was always humming with activity and by the end of the day, there was never much left in the dessert case. Artie made everything fresh daily. Between Libby, Artie, and her part-time employee, Michael who acted as barista and bookkeeper, her small business was solvent, barely. She would never get rich with a small Mom and Pop bookstore/coffee shop as she always had to compete with the shiny, sleek big box stores, but she loved her little shop. She thought her customers kept coming back because Books and Beans had something the bigger stores did not have – heart. They also did not have Artie churning out delicious pastries every day. Reggie had helped with the down payment on the building, but his dream was that she would find the right guy, settled down and have a family one day. Libby was only 34 and there was still time, but now Reggie was gone.
The bell on the front door jingled its happy greeting as Michael came into the shop. As usual, he was five minutes late for his shift. Michael was studying at Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management and worked part-time at Books and Beans. He was scheduled to work 20 hours a week, but usually ended up being there even after he clocked out. Tall, lanky, a tad clumsy and always a bit wrinkled, he was an all-around nice guy. He had taken the fourth spot at the corner Parcheesi table with Reggie’s old buddies. They came daily and spent hours in the corner playing games, drinking coffee, and talking about their days on the force. All retired police officers, Reggie always told Libby she’d never had to worry about criminals snooping around Books and Beans. She just laughed at the thought of any of them chasing after a thief. Burt used a cane, Willie never moved quickly anywhere, and Oscar had put on some pounds since eating Artie’s creations every day. Michael, while a good forty-years younger, seemed to fit right in. He felt it an honor to play in Reggie’s place. Not only that, but he had also learned to make a mean cup of coffee. It was his idea to name the Americano after Reggie. He called it The Regular Joe as Reggie always said he was just a regular guy who liked his coffee strong, hot, and black. A real coffee drinker, he’d say.
“Morning, Libby…sorry I’m late…. I missed my bus.” Michael blew past on his way into the back office where he had a small, cluttered desk in the corner. “I had to study for my statistics test all night, and then of course, I overslept.” He was in his last year working toward an MBA in finance. He was a whiz with numbers, and thanks to him, Libby’s books were always in order. She lived pretty meager since moving into the small apartment above the shop. It broke her heart to sell the house she and Reggie had shared in Inglewood, but the memories were too strong, and she really didn’t have the means to keep it up. Thankfully, the housing market was a seller’s dream, and she was able to put the money on the building mortgage and renovate the small space upstairs for an apartment. It was small, but all she really needed for herself and her cat, Spartacus. The apartment was just an extension of the bookshop downstairs. Comfy chairs, lots of books and plants and always vinyl playing on Reggie’s old turntable console Libby brought from the Inglewood house.
“No worries from me, but you’ll have some groveling to do with Artie. She cleaned the espresso machine, and I could hear your name between curses.” Libby smiled at him as she passed on her way to Fiction with an armful of new books. Michael was always a bit taken back when she smiled at him. She had no idea how lovely she was, and he was terrible around the opposite sex. He always dropped something or said something ridiculous, usually concerning numbers. He knew he was sunk when women’s eyes glazed over.
Quickly averting his gaze, he headed over to the coffee shop side but not before knocking over the pen cup on the front desk. “Maybe if I promise to do her taxes for free this year, she’ll forgive me. Ya, think?”
Libby just laughed and shook her head, “That and a steak dinner, maybe! Good luck!”
For the next few hours, the front door jingled constantly with customers coming and going on their way to work or somewhere; everyone in a hurry but many who stopped and filled the tables. Music piping in softly, the espresso machine going continuously, it was Libby’s happy place. She was leafing through the latest local arts and music rag, The Nashville Scene, and saw where the yearly performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker would be performing at The Tennessee Performing Arts Center in three weeks. Since childhood, Libby had loved ballet, and at one time even hoped to be a dancer but a broken foot at the age of thirteen ended those dreams. Reggie made sure the two of them went each year to the ballet even though he knew nothing about dance. The last performance she attended was with Reggie in 2019, and they certainly had no clue it would be their last together. She had thought about going last year, but just never got around to getting tickets. Maybe this year. Maybe. Putting the magazine down, she saw a very handsome customer approach the desk. She had seen him come into the shop several times, always alone. Tall, with good looks, just her type.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” he flashed a friendly smile.
“Yes, I’m the owner, Libby McBride. Can I help you?” Libby gave him a friendly smile in return.
“Ah, so you’re the genius behind this little jewel. I was wondering who owned this place. Beauty AND a brain, as they say. My name is Chance Ford. How do you do?” He extended his hand and Libby reached out to shake it, but instead he drew her hand up to his lips and gently kissed the back of her hand. Libby felt her Irish blood betraying her as a blush crept up her neck. “Well, I don’t know about that, but this place is special to me at least, thank you for noticing. The shop I mean.” All tongue-tied she started giggling. Good Lord, Libby! Get hold of yourself! She immediately lapsed into customer mode.
“Is there something specific you were looking for today? We have several new titles in both Fiction and Nonfiction.” Her voice trailed off noticing that he was just smiling and staring at her. Thankfully Artie appeared on her right side and broke the awkwardness.
“OH, Artie! Right, this is Chance Ford. He’s a customer.”
“Obviously.” Artie gave her the eye.
“And, Chance, this is Artie Shibad, she is the pastry chef for the Beans portion of the place.”
He extended his hand to Artie and just as with Libby he was going to kiss the back of her hand, but Artie swiftly extracted her hand before his lips could touch her skin. If he seemed put off by the abruptness, he didn’t show it.
“Nice to meet you, Artie. I enjoy your pastries far more than I should. I always have to spend an extra hour in the gym every morning to build in time for one of your delicacies.” Another flashy smile. Libby could tell by her body language that Artie was not impressed.
“Well, ladies, I must get back to the office. It was a pleasure meeting both of you and I will see you again soon. Thank you for the great service.”
Libby waved as he headed out the door. The minute the door closed she turned to Artie. “You were not very nice to him, what’s up?”
“The BS meter, that’s what. That guy is a total user. Throwing his smile around and kissing our hands like some Prince Charming. Hfff! Do not get fooled by another superficial guy, Libs!” Artie stomped back to the kitchen, but Libby was still thinking about Chance Ford when she went up to her apartment at the end of the day. As she settled into her favorite reading chair, she addressed her cat, “What do you think, Spartacus? Am I a bad judge of character? Do I like superficial men?” He merely meowed and curled up in her lap. “Oh, you’re no help!” She picked up her latest read and tried to forget about Chance Ford for the evening.