Fresh Ground

Mehves Konuk

A trip to Café 57–the coffee shop formerly known as the 57th Street Istria Cafe–is personal, both for the customers and the workers. Co-owner and manager Belinda Lipscomb, a bubbly native South Sider and former Starbucks barista, greets one customer, “Hey babe, how you doing?” When asked the same, she responds, “Tired, but whatever.” She certainly has reason to be–since assuming ownership of the tiny coffee shop under the Metra tracks on December 20th, Lipscomb has regularly worked “from opening until closing,” even on Christmas Day and New Year’s.

This frenzy of activity has been due to the café’s abrupt change in ownership, and Lipscomb admits that “the transition happened so fast, it was crazy.” Employees were unexpectedly notified on December 12th that Istria would close by the end of the week. Although Istria’s owner, Marc Pribaz, offered Lipscomb a position at the café’s other location in the Hyde Park Art Center building, the other employees would have been jobless right before the holidays. “I just couldn’t stand for it,” Lipscomb recalls. “I shed some tears, but then I thought that I should be using this energy for something else, to try and make a difference.” She reached out to investors, insistent that “this place needs to be here, this place has a purpose.” A customer connected her with her current partner Tony Wilkins, a University of Chicago graduate and Hyde Park resident, who needed only to come into the shop to observe before he was convinced to invest.

Lipscomb is honest about the challenges she’s facing, but since she “basically ran the shop” before, she is confident that she is capable of taking over. She emphasizes her hopes for the space as a community café. Though it is already a coffee shop with regulars who stop in as many as two or three times a day, Lipscomb emphasizes that “the café is not just about coffee; it’s to meet people, to catch up. It’s the music, the feel, the relaxation. You can use the café for anything.” Café 57 will continue to be a place where every customer, regular or not, feels at home; Lipscomb wants to rebrand, starting with the café’s slick new name, which she says she had been thinking about and “feeling forever.” Wilkins, a cyclist, envisions the café as a post-ride destination for groups biking down the lakefront, potentially creating a painted trail to guide the way. Lipscomb hopes to eventually stay open until 9 or 10pm, organizing family-friendly activities such as bingo and karaoke, as well as opening the space to musicians and artists. A more definite schedule of events will likely be set by the spring, and she admits that because she was “pushed into this situation” she didn’t have a long-term plan from the start. “I learned a lot from Istria, some good, some bad; I learned not to handle my business in a certain way,” she says. Anytime she mentions the untimely closing, however, she quickly follows it with a smile and some reservations. “The unfortunate happened, but it’s a blessing to me. I want to give back to the community.”

As we speak, Lipscomb faces away from the door, but she seems attuned to the approach of customers, periodically glancing towards the counter. She would not want to neglect to greet a regular, since her relationships with many of them extend far beyond knowledge of their favorite drinks. “I know people by name. I know when their train comes; what time their kids’ lessons and sports events are; I’m babysitting and housesitting for them. I do this for the customers, we do this together.”
After several years working at a downtown Starbucks where she felt distanced from the customers and disliked the shop’s corporate feel, Istria and its patrons became her community. “My mom died when I was six, my dad died when I was 23, I have been working since I was fifteen–it was rough for me. I was a homebody, keeping to myself. But when I’m around people, I use that energy,” she begins to smile. “They keep me going every day. I never thought this would happen in a million years, but getting to know people here has just changed my whole outlook on life. I’m so proud of myself. I came a long way.”

She goes back behind the counter to join her co-worker, whose sweater matches her own. They discuss the café’s new Facebook page with a customer. “You know we’re already online, we’ve got three photo albums already,” they laugh. Sparkling holiday decorations and bows still adorn the windows, and the tip jar is overflowing.

Café 57, 1520 E. 57th St. Monday-Friday 6:30am-7pm; Saturday-Sunday 7am-7pm. (773)573-8194.