News Commentary: Lamentations for a Latte

Peet’s Getting Ready to Close Doors on State Street Digs

Peet's Coffee & Tea will close the location at 1131 State Street on Friday, May 18.
Paul Wellman

The world will little notice — and care even less — when Santa Barbara loses one star out of its milky way of coffee houses next week. But I will. As of May 18, the Peet’s caffeine dispensary on the 1100 block of State Street — right across from the art museum — will shut its doors, the victim of already sky-high rents having just gotten that much higher. For me, Peet’s departure qualifies as yet another nail in the coffin holding the festering corpse that State Street has become.

Maybe I’m getting a little melodramatic here. But I don’t think so.

Coffee, like beauty, lies in the taste buds of the beholder. For my money, Peet’s sold the best bean at the best price with the least amount of waxed-mustachioed millenialista self-satisfaction in town. At Peet’s, none of the baristas ever sniffed the cup of coffee they served me. That has happened elsewhere. More to the point, there was a palpable kindness to the people behind the counter at Peet’s that was greatly appreciated by anyone needing a port in their storm or an island in their stream. I was one. It offered a home away for home for countless scribblers, poets, songwriters, insomniacs, programmers, visitors, artists, journalists, county bureaucrats, politicians, musicians, and others unified by a love of coffee. It was what the hipster sociologists now term “an intersection point of accidental community.” The courtyard behind Peet’s is one of Santa Barbara’s truly great unsung spaces, squandered it seems by everyone on the planet but me. I can’t tell you how many interviews — on and off the record — I had there. Any excuse to be there was an excuse well taken.

Life, of course, goes on. Snakes shed their skin. Leopards do, in fact, change their spots. Peet’s downtown State Street operation, I am told, did not make money under the existing rent, said to be in the neighborhood of $10,000 a month. Rents, I am also told, just increased. “By how much?” I asked. “By too much,” I was told. (Its outer State Street digs near La Cumbre will still remain open, and many of the downtown workers will go there.)

The landlord, SIMA Management, did not return calls for comment. SIMA does not enjoy a reputation as one of Santa Barbara’s kinder, gentler landlords. Just the opposite, in fact. The counterpoint to SIMA is the Petersen family, which owns La Arcada right across State Street from Peet’s. Since the days when family patriarch Hugh Petersen ruled the roost, La Arcada tenants woke up each morning thinking they’d died and gone to heaven, so spoiled were they by Hugh, who has long since died. Over the years, Petersen’s tenants repeatedly nominated Hugh as a Local Hero. Every time, Petersen declined to be so honored. We have yet to receive such phone calls from any SIMA tenant.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I don’t care.

Peet’s departure comes as the lights seem to be going out one after the next on State Street. Maybe State Street’s just too long to survive in today’s Amazon über alles universe. Maybe we’re in the throes of one of the great shakeouts that need to occur from time to time. All I know is State Street is deader than dead, an experiential wasteland devoid of flavor or function, unless, perhaps, you are in the market for a swell $900 purse, some frozen yogurt, or a pair of throw-away sunglasses. The fabled Funk Zone is nice if you’re on Spring Break from Los Angeles or Costa Mesa and have a taste for overpriced rum drinks sold at retro-ironic tiki joints served with mini umbrellas and not enough alcohol. Or over-fermented IPAs that taste like a moldy basement and make your eyes cross after three sips because of the high alcohol content.

Maybe I’m a grouch.

Maybe there’s no maybe about it.

I went down to the 600 block of State Street. It’s like a neutron bomb hit. The Detroitification of Santa Barbara. Verizon just folded up its tent. When will 7-Eleven move in? Oh thank heaven. It’s so bad there that even the panhandlers have left. The police department will have to start paying people to loiter to find enough work to do. Elvis left the building a long time ago. Somehow, however, the Adult Store further down the street, remains open for business. One would have thought the safely discreet distance offered by internet sales would have taken it out long ago. One would have been wrong. It offers the possibility of experience, something the retail wizards say is more important than goods and services.

Three weeks ago, I visited downtown Ventura. It was cooking. It was popping. It was alive. I managed to buy three pair of pants for $24. Even the thrift stores that used to reek of dead skin have upped their game. And by a lot. There were people on the sidewalks. There was a nice mix of froufrou shops with bars where people who like leather and tattoo ink can make themselves at home.

Me, I felt right at home at Peet’s back courtyard. The front one wasn’t bad either.

Judy Garland had it right when she clicked her heels together and said, “There’s no place like home.” If she’d ever sipped a latte at Peet’s, she’d have said, “There’s no place like foam.”

It was nice while it lasted.


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