Musings on John Vaughan and the “Going Out of Style” of Fresh, Local, and Lovingly Roasted Coffee

I never had the opportunity to meet John C. Vaughan from St. Louis. And that saddens me, because he looks like the sort of man a person would WANT to meet… especially if they were a person like me that is (and as John obviously was) absolutely crazy about roasting coffee.

Let me back up a bit here. I recently came across a fantastic old photograph of Mr. Vaughan, taken in the spring of 1967 and showing him smiling (wistfully, it seems to me) while scooping and weighing out a customer’s order of freshly roasted coffee. According to the UPI teletype story headlined “GOING OUT OF STYLE” pasted to the back of the photo, John C. Vaughan - the last surviving small-time coffee roaster, tea blender, and spice merchant in St. Louis - was closing his doors for the final time, having started to work there as a young man scooping beans in 1915. The reason? Apparently, John C. Vaughan had become an American anachronism, insisting on producing fresh, local, and hand-roasted coffees for a dwindling clientele that increasingly pronounced such establishments as “out of style” when compared to the large, well-lit, and heavily advertised supermarkets that had replaced America’s neighborhood grocers, bakers, and fruit merchants.

At one time, the article states, there were at least a half-dozen roaster-retailers in St. Louis like the J. Vaughan Coffee Company, but the number had dwindled through the decades until Mr. Vaughan had become the last man standing – well, at least the last man standing behind a counter with coffee scoop in hand, Toledo scale at the ready, and rolls of butcher paper and string to neatly wrap his customers purchases up with while chatting with them about the weather or the latest news of the neighborhood. After standing behind that counter scooping and weighing and grinding coffees for 52 years, he was going to finally retire – with no one noting or mourning his loss except for a nosy newspaper reporter, no one interested in taking his place in front of the warm coffee roaster on bitterly cold mornings, no one to proudly stand behind his counter as he had done through a Depression and two World Wars, amazed and delighted to be serving the now-grown grand-children of his first customers.

How many days did Mr. Vaughan have left, after the photographer and reporter left, before roasting his last roast and grinding his last few pounds in one of those massive Hobart grinders on his back counter? There’s no way to tell for certain, but if you observe the coffee price sign (“All High Grades”) hanging above the grinders, you’ll note John sold four blends at four prices - a coffee for every taste and every budget could be found at J. Vaughan’s Coffee Company. If you look at the sign closely, you can see where someone – presumably John himself – has crossed out the per pound prices and hand-written new, low close-out prices, perhaps marked down to help him get rid of his last sacks of green coffee. John must have been fighting a losing battle with the supermarkets of St. Louis, who in 1967 were advertising one pound cans of 100% Colombian Coffee for $.79 each, with a coupon inside worth $.25 cents off the next can. Of course the supermarket’s canned coffee wasn’t as fresh or good tasting even as John’s $.79 a pound lowest-grade coffee, but that became a moot point when fewer and fewer customers crossed the threshold of his store to make a purchase.

I remember that era of displacement quite well, shopping with my grandmother here in Portland in 1967, walking her to the small neighborhood grocer in Ladd’s Addition she had patronized since the 1930s. I felt completely out of style and out of place, being young and hip and full of myself, helping my grandmother push one of the store’s tiny metal carts through the narrow aisles, uphill and down, uphill and down, the old wooden floor of the grocer sagging between the joists with age. Being “out of style” in that era of freedom – freedom of thought, freedom of speech, even freedom of love – was unthinkable to most of us, and in our rush to embrace change we turned our backs on the very things we needed to sustain us and our cities, especially small, livable neighborhoods and their supporting cast of independent merchants like John C. Vaughan, sustaining us with their coffees, foods, and connections to each of us.

Ironically, today’s specialty coffee industry was born almost simultaneously with when the J. Vaughan Coffee Company closed its doors forever. Alfred Peet opened his small, neighborhood coffee roastery on Vine Street in Berkeley in 1966, quietly launching a coffee revolution that is still going strong these many decades later. The revolutionary ‘60s cut both ways, I suppose. The old guard deemed to be out of style and without value, and the young Turks blazing trails that turned out to be not so new. Having personally bridged both eras, I mourn and honor these old urban roasters, while being comforted knowing that coffee roasting has never been in better hands than it is today. Somehow, I think Mr. Vaughan would probably agree…

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