Ashland Coffee & Tea finds itself at the center of the community's hopes and fears. 

Mocha in a Small Town

"The place was jumping," says Ashland author Phyllis Theroux of her first visit to the coffeehouse. "It was full of young couples who had brought their children and with them their bookbags full of crayons and coloring books."

Some of the kids were in pajamas, sitting at their work or wandering up to the stage, even dancing while their parents looked on, sipped wine or coffee, and talked and listened while the blues band played.

In a town of 6,000 Southern souls, it was something to see. But then, locals will remind you, Ashland is the center of the universe, and as Theroux looked around, pleasantly bewildered, she thought to herself, "This is Ashland's living room."

Fortunately, there's a bathroom, too; and in the afternoons, no line. Inside, on one wall, a bulletin board is crowded with fliers: "Looking for bass player ..." "Did you lose this cat? We found her! Please call ..." "Take 5 comedy troupe, Thursdays at 8 p.m. Feb. 17 to Mar. 23. $5. ..." "Mr. Patrick Henry Pageant! Come see your favorite Patrick Henry men battle for the crown!"

On another wall is a little round sticker: "Sprawl costs us all!"

The phone is ringing again. "Ashland Coffee & Tea."

In a cream-colored sweater and fresh makeup at 5 p.m., comfortably elegant Mary Leffler is speaking on the portable. Seated amid the orphanage of furniture that fills the wide room — good old wooden tables and chairs, and benches of no common lineage — her free hand alternates between a crust of bread and a glass of white wine, and the piece of paper on which are printed the official arguments of the Ashland-Hanover Citizens for Responsible Growth, of which she is recording secretary, against Wal-Mart.

There will be another town Planning Commission meeting tonight, Feb. 16, though only Wal-Mart will get to speak, to present a revised proposal for building a store at the intersection of I-95 and the town's main thoroughfare. (The public hearing has been rescheduled for April 19.) Leffler is ready, just in case; television cameras will be there, after all; and of course the documentary film crew is back in town to shoot the controversy for a PBS special.

Volunteers of America!

Got a revolution! Got to revolution!

Volunteers of America! Volunteers of America!

With impeccable timing Jefferson Airplane, circa 1969, begins playing throughout the coffeehouse, thanks to Kay Landry, an elfin woman in overalls and black sneakers who runs the place with Leffler's husband, Jim. At the moment, Landry can be seen in a small office off the main seating area, sitting next to the stereo and CDs, entering receipts into the computer.

Of course; it had to be; the center of the universe is Ashland, and the center of Ashland is a coffeehouse run by aging hippies.

That's the impression some town natives have of the place. You can't blame them. Look around: Despite the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch and the ultraconservative Washington Times stalemating the liberal Washington Post and the ultraliberal New York Times on the news rack, there are the more telling shelves of bring-and-borrow paperbacks, and the requisite blackboard menus in multicolored chalk. Despite the large lounge where the church groups and clergy often meet, and where the county bar association convenes, there, too, can be found the occasional college class, the improv comedy troupe, the weekend bands playing their rock 'n' roll, their jazz and blues, their folk and bluegrass. There is Saturday morning children's theater, but no television; there is beer, but no smoking. Despite the presumably nonpartisan Richmond bicycling association that stops here on regional treks, there are youths on the front porch and behind the cash register now, running things.

Look: There is art on the walls. One suspects there may even be poetry.

"Now this," says the female clerk with a sweeping gesture toward the implacable old stove, "is Ashland."

It's Ashland Feed Store, actually; bigger inside than it looks from the sidewalk. The stove is where the good old boys come early in the morning to warm hands, eat biscuits, nod and talk about the weather.

Ashland Feed: within spitting distance of the coffeehouse. A gray-haired gentleman in a ball cap, who scowls at reporters and presumably other people who wear ties, says he'll be in the back, but the clerk will let you know what's what.

"This is country folks," she says. "That appeals to a different type of people." But both are Ashland now, and Ashland folks get along. The consensus here is that Ashland Coffee & Tea, if come-lately, bohemian, artsy-smartsy and even a little elite, is a net good.

"No worse than Carytown," she says with a clever smile. (Her name? Don't Quote Me.)

In the three years since the coffeehouse went up, it's even helped bring in a little business — maybe more than a little. In Ashland Feed there is a large display, front and center, of Iams dog food, the designer brand for yuppie puppies. And in the clerk's eyes and in the gray-haired gentleman's eyes and in the plaid-shirted earnest young man's eyes there is little doubt about what would have happened to Ashland Feed, and other stores they know, if last year the newcomers next door hadn't kept Wal-Mart out of Ashland, at least for a while.

Landry and Leffler are red-headed forty-somethings, friends since VCU who married men who have been friends since high school. Between them they have six children and 21 years in Ashland. The Landrys got here first.

Leffler says: "I used to see Kay and I'd say, 'Boy, you look good. What is it?'"

"'Ashland,'" Landry says on cue. "Every time we'd drive through ... I'd say, 'This is where I want to raise my family.'"

The Lefflers thought it was perfect, too; and for three years, it was, except for one thing — Jim. He couldn't find a decent cup of coffee, and for a substance-abuse counselor, that's no small matter. There was another: He wanted to start his own business.

They hemmed, they hawed, they decided. Then, on his 40th birthday, Jim Leffler and some friends "showed up with hammers and built," his wife says. Two months later, November 1996, Ashland Coffee & Tea opened.

It was a fiasco. Understocked and overwhelmed, a large and very public disaster threatened to undo the solution to Jim Leffler's midlife crisis. His wife, his responsible and organized wife, was home in bed with double-pneumonia, and nobody really knew how to work the cash register. Not that the locals were used to paying more than a buck for a cup of coffee, anyway.

At some point that day the door finally closed, and in its merciful grace, time passed, and things were smoothed out. Within two years Ashland Coffee & Tea expanded twice, as the bakery and then the gift shop next door moved, making room for the coffeehouse stage and lounge. By last year area publications began dubbing it the best around.

With a dozen employees, Jim Leffler and Kay Landry run the store now, more or less full-time. "Jim and Kay are the heart and soul of this place," Mary Leffler says, and doesn't mind when newcomers assume they are husband and wife.

"It's just where a lot of stuff happens," says Rosanne Shalf, a former Ashland vice mayor and the author of a town history. She has lived here since 1975 and has seen the decline and subsequent restoration and renewal of downtown, "still on its way up." There are hopes that even the old movie house will reopen soon.

But Wal-Mart, she adds, will "kill the momentum" by siphoning the historic district's retail dollars and swamping the town center with traffic.

Forty people attended the first meeting Theroux called together last year at the coffeehouse. The group became Ashland-Hanover Citizens for Responsible Growth, and she now serves as president. The coffeehouse and other businesses had been collecting signatures against a proposed motel and residential development; united, the citizens' group won. Now it has a lawyer and a bank account, and has raised $20,000 in less than a year of operation.

But Mary Leffler sees the coffeehouse as far more than the hub of anti-Wal-Mart sentiment. She calls it one of the important "third places" in life, "places that keep a community together — besides home [and] work. There's not a lot of great 'third places' around anymore."

But while Ashland Coffee & Tea has helped create a community where newcomers and natives are welcome — nothing less than a new Ashland — now it is the unofficial headquarters in the campaign to preserve it. Wal-Mart, which last month filed an amended proposal and on this day would make its case to the planning commission that unanimously denied its first request, appears to have made some converts. And amid the coffeehouse consensus, it's easy to forget that a lot of people in Ashland want a Wal-Mart. Don't-quote-me, locals say, it's tearing the town apart — down the line between natives and newcomers.

Leffler says that if the town council were to vote today, it could go "3-2, either way."

They defeated the proposed motel and later the residential development before Wal-Mart surfaced, and they have a new battle in the proposed building of a YMCA in Carter Park. "We hope to still be doing this and taking care of our town" after Wal-Mart, no matter what the outcome, says Faye Prichard. "We're not a one-shot group."

She, Micheline Woolfolk and Andrea Ferment are sitting around a table with Mary Leffler after the planning commission meeting, thinking. They have been asked to make a list of the things that are most Ashland. Among "eclectic" and "diverse" and "humane" and "good for children" are some tangibles: the Fourth of July parade, the town talent and variety show, the trains that roll through 32 times a day, Cross Brothers grocery store, a street lady, the Henry Clay Inn, the sight of the older couple who pick up litter along the railroad tracks each morning, Koon's Barber Shop, "The Center of the Universe."

"What about Ashland Coffee & Tea?" someone offers, incredulous they could have forgotten

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