“Hey! Hey! Are you from Newbury town? Yeah! You!” Belle and Sebastian has stopped softly playing in the background and I am forced to swivel around in my just-cushy-enough hard-backed chair to face the adorable Rao’s barista as he flips his bangs out of his face and blushes. “Sorry, sorry everyone, I just got excited thinking someone was from my hometown!” The whole, full café, which has turned around to look at him in confused silence, starts laughing. Students who are deep in textbooks and laptops as the hours of this cold, rainy Sunday slip away are startled up from their work for the first time since they sat down this afternoon. Couples in conversations pull themselves away from each other to make eye contact with their friend from the one five-college class they took last year or the professor who’s name they don’t know who inhabits the table in the corner near the coffee grounds.
Rao’s Coffee in Amherst town center is what I called Amherst 2.0. For me, exploring Rao’s was my first baby step off campus once I had fully become comfortable with Frost 1st floor but while A-level seemed too intense for the amount of studying I was doing as a first year and sophomore. The brisk walk from campus is a breath of fresh air that half-freezes me in the winter months, waking me from my over-heated, incubated studying stupor, and a near celebration from April to October. The time it takes to get from central campus into town forces me to take a moment outside of studying, to remember that I exist in a body and that I live outside of my academics. Maybe that sounds depressing, but as a second semester thesis writer, sometimes it’s hard not to get so wrapped up in my work that I forget to eat, or sleep, or talk to my friends. Further, this walk gives me physical distance that allows me to re-immerse myself in my work at one of the small wooden tables, where only those fellow off-campus explorers will find me.
And it’s in part those fellow explorers (“Rao’s rats” as a friend once called them) that pulls me back Sunday after Sunday. There are the Amherst regulars, of course, but there’s a more specific set of Rao’s folks who I see day in and day out. Certain professors sit alone with giant cups of coffee and book-fortresses, my UMass Hillel friends migrate from the Hillel house on some afternoons, and one social group from the Amherst Regional High School crowds the college students out of the tables on weekdays promptly at 3:45. Last year, Occupy Amherst would take up the big table in the back on Thursdays and the Amherst Regional Gay Straight Alliance could be found at the round couch table in the corner on Friday afternoons. I imagine now that Occupy has dissolved and I would like to hope that the GSA has found a safe space inside their school to gossip and organize at the end of the week. I’ve made a few friends over the years of coming here. An exceptionally tall UMass student and I debate philosophy on study breaks and a beautiful, open-faced organic farming major and I exchange acquaintance-level pleasantries and Life Goals discussions when we run into each other at the water cooler. This set up is ideal for an extrovert trying to get some work done.
Rao’s is a space that is both Amherst and non-Amherst; it is Amherst Plus, a space of advanced or adult Amherst casual socializing. It is this quality that lends Raos most to its capacity as a perfect first date spot. I know people bemoan the Amherst dating scene, but I have found that with a liberal dose of humility and a few steps off campus, dating within and around Amherst can get a lot easier. I have had countless (granted, mostly unfruitful) first dates at Rao’s. The pressures of being seen or having to deal with the immediate reality of Amherst are less on a Rao’s coffee date but the space is casual enough to fall into the date-not-a-date liminal category that most first dates ease into. Their sandwich selection is good enough to not require you to leave if the coffee date transitions into dinner but limited enough that it would be reasonable to switch locations (and moods) for dinner if a date goes that way.
As I sit here writing this article I am touching knees with my boyfriend, listening to James Taylor over the loudspeakers and sipping on a perfectly foamed soy chai latte. I’ve run into a couple friends of mine but for the past hour I’ve had most of the front room alone to (re)draft the first chapter of my thesis and write this article. I appreciate this moment (in my life and in my day) and I appreciate this space.