The first impression that you would get of Ashland Coffee & Tea is that is is the direct polar opposite of Starbuck's.

While the two places are similar in the sense that they both have couches and warm coffee, the similarity ends there. Starbuck's stands for everything Coffee & Tea is against -- big business, mass production and total anonymity.

The active area of the Coffee & Tea building is home to chairs, tables and couches of many different shapes and sizes. They kind of remind me of the people there -- all different but all comfortable. Every time I go in there I sit in a different place than I did last time, because it's worth it to sample every corner and niche of the restaurant. Running right down the middle is a long bookshelf, filled with used books and signs that say "take one, bring back two!" My friend's mother often goes there with a bag and brings back 20 books or so. I suspect she is continually in debt to this transcient literature collection Coffee & Tea offers.

This morning I went there and took two books of my own -- an old "Abnormal Psychology" textbook and "The Rainmaker", by John Grisham. I sat in the front window this time, alternately reading and looking out at cars and the railroad, occasionally watching a train go by.

The food there is delicious, though not particularly flamboyant -- you can get the usual assortment of chai lattes, cappuccinos, milkshakes and bagels. Everything seems to be on the honor system -- you pay whenever you're finished, and keep track yourself of how many lattes you've had so you can get the 12th one for free. Another of my friends went there once and forgot to pay for his espresso milkshake. I don't think anyone noticed.

In the evenings, the place morphs into a packed hangout with live music and a bar, the half of Coffee & Tea that usually appears dark and dusty in the morning sunlight when I go there. Susan Greenbaum plays here sometimes, and her CD, along those of other local bands, is for sale at the checkout counter.

Along with the CDs, muffins and menus, the checkout counter also has a little tear-off calendar called "365 days of Yiddish". I look at that every time I buy something there. The only phrase I can actually remember is "Oy Vey!"

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