Blossoming friendships, spontaneous art and the arrival of a new baby.
A cafe in Bed-Stuy is proving to be a place where serendipitous interactions can and will happen, and where isolated, pandemic-weary neighbors can connect and build community.
Step into September Cafe on Saratoga Avenue and be greeted by the smell of fresh-baked sweet breads, the hiss of the coffee machine and a big smile from owner Sara Lopes or one of her staff.
Since opening in November 2021, September has grown to be a neighborhood spot that is nearly always full of Bed-Stuy and Ocean Hill residents either "working from home" or plotting their next creative project from one of the tables or window benches.
At the center of the buzz is Lopes, a mother-of-two who decided to start the cafe after a serendipitous interaction of her own in early 2021.
"It's funny because I didn't even know September was going to come about until one day I was trying to figure out what my next step was going to be," she said.
The Bed-Stuy local had a cleaning company with a focus on short-term vacation rentals. But, when the pandemic hit, Lopes was forced to pivot.
That's when her landlord approached her about a cafe space opening up on 83 Saratoga Avenue, telling her she thought Lopes would be a good fit. While it was "super random," Lopes said, (she had coffee shop experience but hadn't owned her own cafe before), she followed the thread.
Initially, the owner was already in contract with someone. But when she called Lopes two weeks later saying it had fallen through, she knew it was a sign.
"Because it didn’t go through, I thought it was meant to be, and I jumped on it," Lopes said.
Leaning into her resources — friends with coffee shop experience and her architect partner —Lopes began building the cafe of her dreams (formerly MacDonough Cafe). By November, the bright, plant-filled space was open for business, with either Lopes or friend Miko Uno welcoming in passersby with open arms.
"I really wanted to create a space where it would be like a community spot," Lopes said. "We have so many amazing people in the neighborhood, the coffee shop has developed itself."
For example, when September opened, there was no art on the walls. That's when Bed-Stuy artist Alvaro Barrington, a friend of Lopes, came by and told her he was going to make some paintings for her.
"He was in England at the time, so he shipped all of the frames over. When he flew into New York for a show, he came outside September, and in two days he just painted everything and left it, and sent someone over to plop it on the walls," Lopes laughs. The bright, painterly squares are now a signature of the September vibe.
Another customer and new friend, Devanté, a florist, has also been instrumental in beautifying the space by adorning it with cool flowers and plants, Lopes said.
While opening amid a pandemic has its challenges, it's also shaped what the space has become for the community. Lopes said the shift to working from home has definitely contributed to September being so full most of the time.
"It's allowed so many people from different walks of life who would normally have to go to their corporate jobs or creative fields to come together and just connect on different levels in the space. It's wanting some form of unity, because of the isolation."
Lopes has gotten to know dozens of her neighbors as friends through the shop, and from day to day will be connecting on anything from bereavement to "more frivolous conversations."
She lit up recalling the day she saw two regulars start talking, and a friendship sparking in front of her eyes. "I remember the day they glanced over at each other and started chatting, it was the cutest thing, and now they’re literally best friends," she said.
You never know who you might be sitting next to in the coffee shop. Through the cafe, Lopes also met customer Kwami Lee, a photographer. That led to a friendship in which the pair put on a Mother's Day event for the community, providing free coffee and family photos for moms in the neighborhood.
Caring for moms is close to her heart. Lopes had her second baby in March, and worked at the coffee shop quite literally up to the moment she went into labor.
"I was working the kitchen that day and towards the end of my shift I had to go home real quick, and I was suddenly like, 'Woah, I’m going into labor!' Then I thought, no, it's going to be hours, I have time. So I ran back to the shop and just cleaned up a bit," she laughs.
Lopes and Lee are now talking about other opportunities for community events, including free breast exams outside the store, and panel sessions where neighbors can come to exchange resources.
Lopes wants to emphasize that the space is not hers: it's for the community.
And she puts her money where her mouth is by inviting all of her staff to use the space to create their own revenue. September has also been the venue for Lopes' friends to sell Nigerian food and records, rehearse a play, and run a healing circle.
In November, September will turn one year old. Looking back and recalling walking past the light-drenched corner before September, Lopes can hardly believe how things "manifest themselves."
"I feel like it's my second home now," she says.
"It's so nice to be here and get to know people. Unless you have one space where everyone meets, there’s no way for everyone to get to know each other."