Walk far enough down Spring Street, and you’ll come to Tunnel City Coffee, easily identified by the stream of students walking back toward campus, chatting as they hold their coffee cups. The atmosphere inside is typical of any college town coffee shop. Clusters of three or four students crowd around tiny round tables, laughing as they sip their drinks, while a few feet away, other students sit by themselves, books spread out all over the table, focused, as their empty cups sit forgotten beside them. There’s a line at the front counter of people waiting to place their orders and a display case of cakes and other baked goods along the far wall. Barista Mike Burstein, age 22, appears from the back room to say hello before bustling away to reappear a few minutes later with a hot lunch.
It’s just before 2 p.m. on a Saturday – not even one of Tunnel City Coffee’s busiest times, which according to Burstein are “first thing in the morning, between 6 [a.m.] and 10 [a.m.], and then in the afternoon, between 3 [p.m.] and 6 [p.m.], once everyone has finished class.” But the café is crowded and lively, brimming with the aroma of hot coffee, the air punctuated with the periodic calls of “cappuccino!” and “medium skim latte!” from the barista bustling behind the central counter.
Burstein is relatively new to Tunnel City Coffee, having begun his job about five months ago. He grew up in the Berkshires and attended Buxton High School, located only a few minutes away from the College campus. He went to Skidmore, located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but came back to Williamstown after graduating from Skidmore last spring with a degree in anthropology. Besides the social sciences, he’s also interested in music and plays the African drums. When I asked what he would like to do with his anthropology degree, he laughed and said that’s the “meanest question I could have asked him.” Then he said that, eventually, he’d like to “travel … learn languages … do something with music.”
For now, though, Burstein’s enjoying his job. “I like the people,” he said. “I like the product. It’s kind of cool to learn about roasting coffee and learn the process from the inside out.” Somewhat ironically, Burstein himself is not much of a coffee drinker, but knowing how to roast it has given him a new kind of respect for people who do.
Tunnel City Coffee was fairly quiet during the summer, except during the Williamstown Theatre Festival when several celebrities stopped by. Burstein says Kate Burton, the actress who plays Ellis Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, came in on many occasions and always ordered an “iced tea with a lemon.” Joey Slotnick, from Nip/Tuck also made an appearance at Tunnel City Coffee. (Burstein was still at Skidmore in the spring when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made their belated showing in Williamstown, so he did not get the chance to see them.) After the Theatre Festival ended, however, Tunnel City Coffee was just “kind of waiting for you all to come back,” Burstein said.
Now that the classes at Williams are back in full swing, Burstein says the shop is very busy with students and professors, many of whom are regulars. In fact, he already knows the favorite orders of some of the professors. The most popular drink at Tunnel City is a latté, though everyone puts their own spin on it and has their own unique favorite flavor. Burstein hesitated when I asked what the strangest drink a customer has ever ordered is, before turning around to ask one of the other baristas. She thought for a moment and then, wrinkling her nose slightly, came up with apple cider chai.
Although he is not looking forward to working the frigid early morning shifts when the weather in Williamstown turns cold and wintry, this is the only negative Burstein could come up with regarding his job. He even admits he felt a certain degree of smugness when the end of August rolled around and for the first time he can remember, he experienced a “back-to-school season” in which he did not have to go back to school. There were no more readings to pile up before him, no more papers to write – just some coffee beans to roast. “I like working,” Burstein said, smiling. As for having any funny stories from working at Tunnel City Coffee, Burstein only laughed when the question was posed to him. “Yes,” he said, “But none I can repeat.”