Ode to the Sylva Coffee Shop

Most small southern towns have a place like The Coffee Shop in Sylva — a cafe that has become a local landmark.

I hopped curb here in 1950 when it had a wooden frame exterior and the jukebox had both “Put Another Nickel In” (Theresa Brewer) and “A Fool Such As I” (Jim Reeves). At night, the parking lot was always full of WW II veterans in souped-up cars. Sylva was “wet” and life was good.

Just up the street, the Ritz had just begun showing Sunday movies and I never missed a Cagney, Mitchum or Bogart. I got my salary docked every Sunday because I insisted on seeing the final 15 minutes of the movie before I came to work for Cicero Bryson. I would stand in the back of the theater with the door open, and when the credits started sliding down the screen, I would run like hell.

Now, 60 years later, The Coffee Shop has morphed into a kind of nostalgia museum where you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner under the benevolent stares of multiple John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods, Dale Earnhardts and The Three Stooges. There are tattered Confederate flags, Robert E. Lee and his generals, James Dean, Bogart, Elvis and Marilyn frolic in period shots of drive-in cafe parking lots and all-night restaurants (a parody of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”), their images interspersed with vintage Coco-Cola signs, Uneeda Biscuits ads and hundreds of personalized license plates (RAMB-FEV, BADABANG, NOTKNOWWN POISINUS), with every state (and Aruba) accounted for.

Advertisements for fresh strawberry pie sit cheek to jowl with a seating section labeled “Police Officer Parking.” A collection of vintage pop bottles (Sunspot, Grapette) mingle with potted plants and birdhouses. Johnny Cash, a photo of the Brothers of the Bush (1950’s Centennial) and a photo of Popcorn Sutton. The sheer magnitude of this display causes visitors to stand, mouth agape, staring at the walls, while the constant clatter of spatulas, the sizzle of butter, bacon, hamburger, and the shouts of the “breakfast crew” mingles in a kind of grand, roaring symphony of sound, smells and color.

The majority of The Coffee Shop patrons are local. Elderly couples eat dinner here and the daily menu reflects local preferences: fried okra, cabbage, meatloaf, trout, slaw, potato salad. A significant number of Cherokees eat regularly, and there are the WCU college students who often stare about as they eat as though they had found themselves in an exotic, primitive village in Russia or Germany.

But The Coffee Shop endures, a primal life form that simply acquires an additional layer of scales and armor: a protective coating of ... history and pop stars, Uneeda Biscuits and Coke — a shield that deflects “the changing world.”

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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