Inkwell closes: A sad farewell to the iconic NJ coffee house
It was the winter of 1980 and we had just finished catching as many Springsteen shows as we could during the River Tour. We sat at the Inkwell, happily smoking, and just as happily breathing in other people's smoke, when who do we see sitting at a table not too far from us but Bruce himself.
We ran to the cashier and told her to please make sure that he did not pay his check. We wanted to do it, so enamored were we all with him and our heady carefree teen lives.
He came over to the table to thank us, greeted us warmly, gave my friend a kiss (I’m still jealous) and we were literally trembling.
This is when most of the people at the Inkwell probably didn’t even know who he was and just being at our favorite place with our favorite guy was almost too much happiness to bear.
Fast forward to a fall afternoon in 2007 and I’m walking with my then 16-year-old son down Second Avenue in Long Branch, crossing over the famous Inkwell driveway/outdoor garden.
Who does my son notice but Kevin Smith, the famous New Jersey filmmaker, trying the door.
We knew what Kevin Smith didn’t know at that time and that is that the Inkwell would never be open at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. But history repeating itself, my son, the cinephile, seeing one of his film heroes at what was now HIS favorite place was just another magical Inkwell moment.
After we informed Mr. Smith that he'd have to wait a few hours, we chatted a bit and he said he would return later. No, the Inkwell wasn’t for an afternoon Darjeeling.
The Inkwell came alive at night and stayed bustling and buzzing through the wee morning hours.
It was the place you went after your first date, after a movie, after a tough college exam, after a night of drinking ... to drown your sorrows, to celebrate an occasion, or just to breathe in its very Inkwell-ness — a vibe that is impossible to describe.
You just had to experience it.
One of my kids described it today as the place that made him a man. I just think of it as everyone’s go-to spot. Whether you liked its famous Dutch coffee or not, it was a place where you could order the best fries in the world, or if you were in the mood, just some celery with peanut butter. It didn’t matter.
Because you weren’t really going there for the food. You were going there for the dinginess, the low rumble, the too-loud music, the “I love being in this place that my parents would never step foot into” rush.
It went through some changes over the years. In 1975 it moved locations about a half a mile down from its original spot on Second Avenue. It added things over the years — a deck, an outdoor garden, etc. But the bathroom was always exactly the same. A dark, creaky affair that you only used if you absolutely had to.
If you grew up in Monmouth County you knew the Inkwell. When they announced that they would be closing indefinitely, you heard broken hearts up and down the Jersey Shore. Because it was a place that had its time, and somehow miraculously was stuck in that time.
It didn’t try to modernize. It never needed to. And if you ever did catch a glimpse of the inside before the sun went down, you would’ve been mortified at what you saw. Completely mismatched tables and fraying cloths. The candle on every wobbly table that served an important purpose: To shed enough light to see your friends, but not too much light where you would actually notice the details.
The dingy painted walls seemed to get even dingier with every new repainting. And there was barely a space to walk between tables. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except the fact that you made it there again to revel in its unique ambiance.
It was the Inkwell, and except for maybe a couple of spots in Greenwich Village in the '60s, there was nothing else like it anywhere. And there never will be.
If you knew, you knew.
Opinions expressed in the post above are those of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Judi Franco only.
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