Meet James Maple: Barista, musician and leather craftsman from Mystic, USA
There is a little town with a little alley, tucked away in a 300+-year-old seaport called Mystic in the state of Connecticut, down which you will find possibly the most interesting barista in the world, says US-based Daily Maverick night editor, An Wentzel.
At 7am on a mid-August morning, walking across the Mystic River drawbridge, you can feel the breeze pick up over the water, with a mild nip that makes the little hairs on the back of your neck tingle with the promise of colder weather ahead. Summer is starting to relax its moist, hot grip on the picturesque little town, with the crush of tourists also receding as schools and colleges get ready to welcome students back from their summer holiday.
You make your way over the drawbridge, enjoying the early morning breeze and having the streets almost to yourself. There are other early-morning “regulars” out walking their dogs or themselves, there are also a few joggers – you all greet each other, mostly just a nod of recognition, accompanied by a quick smile, being nodding acquaintances as it were. A community of sorts, a group of people who recognise but do not know each other and share an enjoyment of early morning outdoor physical activity and trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“Hi” to the couple walking their big fluffy white “his-and-hers” fur babies that look like Pyrenean mountain dogs. “Good morning” to the woman who gently jogs by pushing her baby ahead of her in the stroller. And a warm “hello there” to the elderly gentleman who fast walks and is always dressed in black and always has a big smile and a “how are you” as you pass each other going in opposite directions.
With the bridge behind you, you are on the “High “as they say in the UK, or the main drag as they say here. The shops, all closed at this hour, still look inviting, their overhead signage hanging out across the pavement line up with mismatched dominoes. There is the Black Dog (clothing), Samurai Noodle Bar and Grill (great ramen), Astrology Boutique (tarot readings and such), Danforth metal (pewter jewellery and home items made in Mystic), a high -clothing store, two gift stores and then Mystic Army Navy (military and military style clothing and related items).
On the same side of the street, there is a little alleyway with a sandwich board facing the street: “Best coffee in Town”, it says. Follow the sign and about 50 feet away is The Lamplighter Trading company.
Most mornings your barista will be James Maple. Maple is quiet and polite, with a sense of humour that comes out when you least expect it. He has long hair past his shoulders and the kind of moustache that says he is not as ordinary as first meets the eye. Maple is also covered in tattoos, having started when he was 16 and never looked back; he does say “I wish I had waited a bit so that I could have made better tattoo choices. You only have so much real estate [skin] and there are a few that I have that are pretty but meaningless. I don’t regret those exactly, but I wish I had waited a bit and made better choices.”
Entering through the green door you are faced with a counter; on top is an old style gumball dispenser – free to customers’ children – and a jar of pet treats, also free to patrons. A number of items are for sale. All locally made, ranging from artsy (like sketches, hand-printed cotton bandanas, handmade leather belts and pouches) to gourmet (batches of chili, herbal infused salts, local honey and more).
Most summer mornings you’ll find Maple behind the counter, a calm and solid presence, who responds to a comment that he always seems unflappable – like when the cappuccino machine started to play up – “Well, can you be sure at this hour whether I’m calm or half asleep?”, he said.
Born and raised in Mystic, Connecticut, Maple, as a certain large green ogre would say, “has many layers”. The coffee shop was part of his childhood’s landscape: “The coffee shop… was called the Green Marble. I grew up going there. My mom owned a salon in town, so I would go and visit my mom at work and then I would come and get coffees and soda, bagels, cookies, whatever. Fast forward to 2020 and the owner decided to close and my girlfriend and I decided to take it over and keep it [as] what it’s really supposed to be – a true piece of Mystic.”
The biggest challenge of owning a coffee shop, he says with a chuckle, is “Waking up at 6 in the morning. I mean, I’ve never owned a business so every day is a challenge but it’s a good challenge, for the most part – constantly learning about business, myself, people. It’s definitely challenging but it’s very rewarding.”
He clearly enjoys being the proprietor of the coffee shop but says when the idea was first presented to him, he was not immediately drawn to it. Quite the opposite: “I thought it was a terrible idea. My girlfriend, Nicole, thought it was a great idea – she saw it as a great opportunity for both of us”.
At that point, Maple was living a very different kind of life: “I was a touring musician and that work is very time-consuming, very tough, and it will wear you down very quickly. And she saw this as an opportunity to kind of save me from having to do these on-and-off-again jobs [gigs].”
He had, as a teenager, learned to play both the guitar and the piano but had initially followed his mother into the hair business: “After school I had a couple of shitty jobs like any teenage kid would have and then I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life and my mom said ‘well why don’t you go to hair school and be a hairstylist’. And I laughed but then I met this girl who was living in Boston and there was a hair school in Boston so I decided to sign up and I moved to Boston and became a hair stylist.”
He also got married in Boston, where he worked as a hair stylist for four years until he felt somewhat hollowed out by it and rediscovered his love of music: “I didn’t actually play music out of high school, I was in punk bands and stuff in high school and middle school, but once I graduated high school I kind of fell out of music for a while. But my ex-wife… encouraged me to pick up a guitar again, and I did and stopped doing hair and moved back to Mystic.”
Maple says he was ready to get out of hair because “It’s a nasty industry”. His gaze turns inward as he tucks his hair behind his ear and repeats, “It’s a nasty industry – it’s just so catty, dealing with other hairstylists, they’re just all prima donnas mostly… I mean, I was too.
“There’s just so much opulence and… You know you’re getting paid $250 to do a foil but you’ve got to listen to this woman’s problems in her life and how she hates herself… really she just hates her life, hates her husband, hates her kids – you have to listen to all those problems and make her look pretty so she feels good about herself. That’s draining, that’s f****** exhausting, so I got out of that.”
Although Maple was making lots of money, it was not a good enough reason to stay: “You can make as much money as you wanna make, doing hair – an exorbitant amount of money. It’s there as long as you wanna do it, sell yourself, kinda whore yourself out to make money. I don’t give a shit about money. It’s cool to have it…” he chuckles, “I mean I’d like to have a little more than I have, but just be comfortable, you don’t need a lot to be comfortable.”
Music gave him a way forward when he turned his back on hair. He still makes music, but no longer as a touring musician and admits that having the coffee shop as his main “gig” is a different lifestyle.
“It’s a love-hate relationship, the road. You get to be a kid, you don’t have to do anything except to get on stage and play your songs… everything’s taken care of… somebody drives you to xyz, you eat, drink and party for free. People pay attention to you, they love you. The only thing you have to do is play music.”
Maple says being on the road as a musician is a bit like being in a bubble: “You have no responsibilities, really. It’s tough being on the road and then coming home and readjusting to real life. And that’s what I would do, I would come home from touring and come to this coffee shop and just sit at these tables for hours and think about what the hell I was going to do with my life next – until the next tour.”
Now, Maple is sitting at one of his coffee shop’s tables in front of the store. “I met so many of my childhood friends here, I learned about punk rock and hardcore music, here on these bricks – we would trade cassette tapes. I am 38 years old and I’m 15 days older than the record shop next door [Mystic Disc]… I grew up going in there, finding out who the Beastie Boys were, how to spike your hair.”
A corner of his moustache lifts slightly as he half smiles and adds drily, “If it weren’t for this coffee shop and that record shop, I’d probably be rowing for Yale, or something.” He is joking, but he did make honours for high achievement in high school, in order to get his first tattoo. He had wanted a tattoo really badly and was not old enough to get it without parental consent. When he begged his mom she told him she would give him permission to get one, if he got his grades up to make honours student.
Maple is also a leather craftsman, famous in music circles for making leather guitar straps; he has a picture of Sheryl Crow with a custom-made James Maple guitar strap.
When asked how he got into working with leather, his eyes lose focus slightly and he warns that he might get emotional:
“When I was a kid I used to go to this agricultural fair with my grandfather… Opening night at the fair I would also go and sit with him, and we would hang out and talk about tractors and stuff and walk around, buy a hotdog…” he pauses and gives a deadpan stare at an older grey-haired woman walking by, muttering and pointedly looking at his cigarette… he picks up his story again.
“So, we’d walk around and see all the different vendors and things and there was this tent that had all these really cool belts. It had cowboy hats and cowboy shirts and boots and there was this guy who was making leather belts in there and I thought it was really cool.”
The “guy making leather belts” made an indelible impression on the 10-year-old James, and after his grandfather died in 2001, Maple went to the fair by himself:
“I was watching the tractors and thinking about my grandpa and walking around, when I found that tent again and I went in and started looking around and decided to buy myself a belt… a year later I did the same thing, I went with friends and I bought another belt, and then one year I was by myself again and I went in there and decided, ‘you know what, I can do this.’ So I went home and went on YouTube.”
That was eight years ago.
When Maple speaks of his grandfather, you can still hear his grief, whispering beneath his words. “[My mother]) bought me the basic tools and some leather and some stains and some stamps, so I just got to work. It was a kit.”
Inside the coffee shop, some of his leather items are on display and for sale. There are purses, a few bags and some belts – but what is his favourite thing to make?
“I love making guitar straps, custom guitar straps. That’s what got me where I am today with my [leather] business and I like the idea that it’s so personal. It’s a nod to the old country singers and the old country music and country western wear… everybody in country music like at the [Grand Ole] Opry, they all had their guitar straps with big names on. It was like a peacocking thing, kind of like the Nudie suits [by Nudie Cohn] and the Manuel suits with all the rhinestones and embroidery [88-year-old Manuel Cuevas, is known as the Rhinestone Rembrandt).”
Maple pauses. “I was a hairstylist, I have Gucci shoes, I had Gucci belts, I had Louis Vuitton shit. I still like to peacock every now and then, even though I have long hair and tattoos…”
(The Cambridge online dictionary defines peacocking as “behaviour by men that shows that they are very proud of their appearance”.)
He pulls himself back to the table on the red bricks in front of the Lamplighter and adds: “You know when somebody gets their grandfather a custom guitar strap for their 78th birthday, that to me is so special… As much as I’ll complain about it the whole time I’m doing it, when it’s done.. and when I see that person see it… I love making bags too.”
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Maple’s leather work is detailed, neat and precise. He has a leather station in a corner of the coffee shop and if you catch him at it, he is a meditative study in measuring, touching, tapping, drawing, a fine line back and forth between artist and artisan. This is a man who does not give up and keeps doing it till he gets it just right – even if it did all start with “the dog ate his homework”:
“The first thing I ever made was a coaster and I had a basketweave stamp and I stamped the s*** out of it and I put my initials in the middle and I stained it. I thought I was so cool… I made this piece of leather and I was going to have it forever. Then I went for a beer with a friend and I left it on the table and my blind dog ate it.”
A bemused Maple explains, “I came home and I was like, ‘where’s my coaster, I made a coaster’… I was looking all over, couldn’t find it. It didn’t dawn on me that he ate it until he ate belts and I realised that I couldn’t leave leather out to dry I had to put it somewhere else.”
A maker of beautifully crafted personal leather items, a maker of excellent coffee and still a maker of music, there is no denying there is art in James Maple.
Even his name conjures the straight back of a conservative James, interlaced with the art and beauty of the maple tree which hides inside it a rich, delicious and nourishing sap – pure maple syrup is rich in vitamins and minerals.
Many layers indeed. You will feel at home at the Lamplighter, and if you buy nothing but a coffee, you would still be giving yourself a treat. If you catch James himself behind the counter, remember to watch his moustache so you catch it when he smiles at you. DM/ ML
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