Village Cafe & Java Stop in downtown New Albany is the kind of place that is hard to write about.
You sit down to delve into the finer points of the Italian Grinder sandwich or Cajun red beans and rice when — BAM!!! — you get a whiff of an espresso.
So, you switch gears and decide maybe to describe the unique coffee bar that attracts a cadre of coffee lovers with a ladies’ night (free espressos, lattes and cappuccinos all around) and an array of good ol’ boys bellying-up to order lattes.
But then you catch a glimpse of the unique black and white prints of Elvis, Marilyn, James (as in Dean), or the pile of magazines and books, smell one of the many flavored teas or hear the strumming of a guitar or plucking of an upright bass from the live music. Man, sensory overload.
Owner Jim Vigeant and wife and partner Susan Finch have created what some might characterize as a cultural oasis in an otherwise urbane wasteland. Not haughty or pretentious,just well-blended, where people of various creeds and credentials assembly to sample libations, cuisine and conversation.
Transplants to this north Mississippi town from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the once corporate couple decided four years ago to give up their pasts and forge new futures. Brought to New Albany from Chicago to manage a Chapter 11 plant closing, Vigeant, who had worked in the corporate world 14 years, found the process difficult.
“Putting people out of work was a sad thing for me to do,” he said, relaxing on the porch of his home. “That was the first time I had to do that.”
But that experience made him determined to give something back. The Mississippi climate was much more amicable than Chicago and Massachusetts, and New Albany had a certain charm but needed a little shaking up.
“There was a social thing that needed to happen; a culture thing that needed to happen,” he said.
Finch, a self-trained decorator who had tackled projects for a museum and historic homeowners, wanted a coffee bar. Vigeant, who worked several years in a family-owned Italian restaurant in New Bedford, Mass., loved to cook and was no carpentry slouch. And neither one could be characterized as reticent or demure when it came to meeting the public.
Against the better advice of some locals, the two bought an early-1900s era building in what could then have been described as a quickly decaying downtown and poured some family savings and a lot of sweat into bringing fun to this city’s Main Street (actually West Bankhead) with their unique 60-seat restaurant and coffee house.
Since then, the cafe has been a part of helping bring a renewed sense of confidence to this town of 5,000.
If Village Cafe is anything, it is the living embodiment of one thing, Vigeant said.
“It’s okay to be different,” he said, adding, “You don’t have to fit into a certain groove to be a part of this cafe.”
Vigeant has continued to redefine Village Cafe since its opening. Live music was added on Friday nights after the first year and everything from gospel, blues, folk and rock have reverberated off the brick walls. And starting in a few months, Village Cafe will team up with Oxford’s Southside Gallery to serve as a second showing venue for the artist’s works that have made Southside an Oxford institution.
Now that corporate life has been drained from his system, does Vigeant think he will ever return?
“I’ve never worked so hard, for so many hours and loved so much what I’m doing,” he said.