Hole-in-the-wall shop served up coffee, camaraderie and culture

[media-credit name=”Photo by Tequila Minsky ” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]
“Auggie’s,” at 107 Thompson St., gave generations of South Village residents their caffeine fix. Above, the sign taken down from the closed store.
By TERENCE CONFINO  |  The Thompson St. location of the Porto Rico Importing Company, known locally as “Auggie’s,” has shuttered, and contrary to the popular belief that steady increases in rent resulted in the death of this community staple, there’s a bit more to the story.

Dwindling sales in recent years resulted in the place’s inability to turn a profit, said store owner Peter Longo, who took over the coffee shop from August “Auggie” Cognetta more than two decades ago.

“And basically, our lease was over on the last day of 2011,” Longo added, stressing his good relations with his landlord over the years.

Longo grew nostalgic as he related how former owner Auggie had agreed, “some 25 to 30 years ago,” to give Longo a phone call when he was ready to retire, since Porto Rico was interested in taking over the location.

The shop had been a community fixture serving up freshly roasted coffees for more than 45 years.

However, according to Barrett Gross, a longtime Thompson St. neighbor, the barista who ran the coffee shop in recent years adhered to the more popular story. To hear the employee tell it, the landlord had, in fact, asked for an increase in rent and Longo decided to leave rather than pay “above-market” rates.

Gross also said that Longo would have had to invest money in the shop to compete with Local cafe on Sullivan St. and the nearby Starbucks, something Longo was not willing to do. Therefore, business dwindled at the Thompson St. java spot in recent years.

Business at Auggie’s wasn’t always in jeopardy, though. According to Gross, from the 1980s until about six years ago, lines were known to snake in front of the shop 10 minutes before it opened and sales would remain steady for the next two hours each morning.

“Business was brisk all day back then, and the coffee was superb,” Gross said in an e-mail. “Lately the shop was empty much of the time, and the prevailing opinion is that the quality also was on the decline.”

What will be missed more than the fresh coffee is the camaraderie and the neighborhood culture that the shop reflected. Auggie’s served as a social setting for elderly women looking to get out of their walkup apartments each morning and was also a gathering place for creative young artists, writers and musicians who loved the store’s no-decor interior and the streetscape view afforded them from the outdoor benches.

Linda Pagan, owner of The Hat Shop on Thompson St., concurred with regard to the cultural and social loss to the community.

“I knew all of them over there,” said Pagan. “It was like a clubhouse — a real social setting.”

Pagan also cited her concerns for the loss of foot traffic in the area that has ensued due to the coffee shop’s closing. However, she agreed that, more difficult to replace are the memories of a shop that imprinted itself as the local go-to site for coffee connoisseurs.

“Coffee is a great thing,” Pagan concluded, “because the cup costs more than the coffee.”

Perhaps, it’s the smaller things in life that people come to miss the most.