GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A queer coffee shop in Grand Rapids offering community and a banned book library is moving.
Lotus Brew Coffee and Dry Bar, located inside Communitea Wellness on College Avenue near Bradford Street, opened in its current space about two years ago after getting its start as a coffee bicycle at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.
The owner, Max Freeman, said that as the coffee bicycle was doing really well, he was considering getting a coffee van when he was approached about the current location.
“I fell in love with it. I had no idea what I was doing,” he said with a chuckle. “I decided ‘OK, let’s try a store front and see if we can make it work’. Somehow, we did.”
Now, it’s outgrown that space and is moving to a building about twice the size at 211 Diamond Ave. SE near Cherry Street in the East Hills neighborhood. Communitea Wellness has been wonderful, Freeman said, and it’s a bittersweet move.
Lotus Brew Coffee will move out of the spot on College Avenue by Nov. 30. Freeman hopes to have the new place open in early December.
EXPANDED EVENTS, BANNED BOOK LIBRARY
The new building will allow Lotus to offer more space to customers, expand its bakery operations and host more events.
The café already hosts several events each week, like a GR Queer Writers group, board game socials and fiber art events.
“All these groups are accessible to everyone, regardless of orientation or experience,” Freeman explained. “It’s meant as more of just like a social hang for folks to really get involved within their community and have fun and meet friends.”
It also hosts the ‘Secret Queer Coffee Cult.’
“We started it as a way to get our name out there. The whole point of the Secret Queer Coffee Cult is it’s not really a secret and it’s not really a cult,” he said with a laugh. “It’s there to show that we’re a safe space for the community, and it’s also there acknowledging that there’s not a lot of safe spaces within our neighborhoods, our city, our nation.”
Freeman will be adding events at the new spot like drag brunches, projector nights, karaoke and open mic nights. He also wants to host a queer prom and queer makers markets that would be free for vendors to participate.
The new location will also offer space to expand on their document-free food pantry and the banned book library.
“We started it in response to the b——- happening in Texas … (that) spread like wildfire throughout the nation,” Freeman explained.
Most of the books were donated to the free library. Working on the honor system, it allows people to check out up to five books at a time for up to three months. There’s an almost 90% return rate, Freeman said.
The library provides age-range warnings for younger patrons and trigger warnings, Freeman said, and includes many queer-focused and banned titles.
The library is partially to be a resource to the community and partially to raise awareness about issues, he said.
“We’re not going to stand for this censorship,” he said, adding that classic titles like “Fahrenheit 451” have been banned.
He also encourages people to purchase the books they really liked at a local bookstore like Books & Mortar.
‘COZY LIBRARIAN TAVERN FEEL’
The new location will still have the cozy feel with relaxing tones. The design will include lots of dark navy and a local artist will paint patchwork botanicals on the wall. Freeman said it will have a “cozy librarian tavern feel.”
As the team gets ready to move, Freeman posted an online fundraiser to help with the cost of moving because the new space is undergoing a complete renovation and remodeling. The fundraiser met its $6,000 goal within five or six days and has since gone past that.
“I honestly didn’t even think that we’d get as much community support as we did, and I’m just thankful for the overwhelming response,” Freeman said.
He said he’s feeling a bit of “imposter syndrome.”
“I still feel like I’m the hipster running a small coffee bicycle at the Fulton Street Farmers Market when we first started. And it’s grown into such an amazing, crazy thing within only two years. But honestly with the community behind me, can’t be more thankful,” he said.
The coffee shop may have more employees at the new location. Freeman said it’s very important to him to treat his employees well and offer good pay. An entry-level barista at Lotus Brew Coffee makes $20 per hour plus tips — and Freeman said he wishes he could pay more.
He said he’s also flexible when employees need to call in, adding: “Life happens. We’re human.”
The drive to treat his employees well came when he dropped out of college and bused across the East Coast for a few years, Freeman said. When he got to a new city, he’d get a job often in the service or retail industry.
“I was treated horribly,” he explained. “I would never want to do that to anyone else. I’m trying to push for a change, especially within Grand Rapids, about how we treat our service industry and how we treat our workers.”
Once in the Diamond Avenue spot, Freeman said he’s hoping to collaborate with other East Hills businesses. He credits his success so far in part to always thinking about how the team can add to their community.
He also credited it to becoming more queer-focused, something one customer early on pushed against.
“Within the first two weeks of opening up the shop, I only had the pride flag up. And I had a customer give me a five-star review: They loved the coffee, they loved everything,” Freeman said. “And we were talking and then they looked at the pride flag. … They took out their phone, removed their review — told me they removed the review. …. (They) said, ‘If you keep that up, you’re not going to survive very long and you’re not going to have many customers.’ And then they walked out.
“And I was kind of furious at that, just because there’s not many queer-safe spaces within Grand Rapids,” he continued. “And so I did the exact opposite that they advised me to do: I tried making it more and more of a safe space and a community where folks can breathe. Where folks could live, where folks could meet friends.”