University City

Why we need Jackson's Java

University City needs Jackson's Java.

It's not just about the coffee, either. In the early 1990s, Jackson's Java was the only place near UNC Charlotte to get a cappuccino.

Today, the situation is very different, with a Starbucks on every corner. They even have installed one of their caffeine dispensaries in the Harris-Teeter Supermarket beside Jackson's Java itself.

But coffee alone does not a coffeehouse make.

In its quirky way, Jackson's Java lets us define our community rather than letting consumerism define us. It's a classic coffeehouse, an incubator for unpredictable discussions, an apt setting for writing everything from a grocery list to the great American novel, and even home to a tragic but inspiring ghost.

These are gifts no chain store can bring.

Admittedly, I wasn't always a Jackson's Java fan.

Before moving to Charlotte, I associated "coffeehouse" with "rebellious" and "avant-garde." Back in the crazy '60s, our off-campus coffeehouse near the University of California at Santa Barbara was an epicenter for poetry, song and student rebellion. Just down the street was a Bank of America branch.

One wild night, a phalanx of students chanting "Don't fight the banker's war, burn the banks at home!" pushed a burning Dumpster through the bank's glass doors and burned it the ground. The coffeehouse then became a refuge for protesters fleeing tear gas and the riot squad.

After we moved from California to Charlotte in the early 1990s, I quickly spotted Jackson's Java. In this corporate town where banks cast a long shadow, I gleefully anticipated an out-of-Charlotte experience as I walked through the door.

I was in for a rude awakening.

Instead of The Nation, The Progressive and faded issues of Zap Comix, Jackson's Java had piles of Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and William F. Buckley's National Review. Amid patriotic knickknacks on the bookshelves, a sign proclaimed that "Dittoheads" met here weekly to quaff espresso drinks while listening to Rush Limbaugh.

It turned out that Mike Jackson, the place's namesake, owner and manager, was an outspokenly conservative Republican member of Charlotte's City Council.

Clearly, I had entered a parallel universe.

Two decades later, Jackson's Java is still going strong, though Jackson's political career appears to have ended, at least for now.

There have been changes over the years. The shop has moved up the mall to a bigger space, and there are now few signs of politics of any hue.

You can sit outside, European style, or duck into the quiet woodsy interior, where a laboring air conditioner hums a hypnotic om, punctuated by an occasional cell-phone soliloquy. In the back, there's pile of burlap coffee bags filled with beans from Colombia, Guatemala and Ethiopia - Jackson is also one of the area's few remaining independent small-batch roasters.

Last Thursday, on a straight pew that runs 30 feet along a wall with little tables scattered in front of it, I counted six people seated in a row, each focused intently on a laptop.

Every so often an off-the-cuff conversation erupts, the kind that true coffeehouses are famous for, where baristas and strangers at adjacent tables join right in. Recent topics have included the proposed UNCC football team (consensus: have university leaders gone crazy?), seniors starting a medical marijuana cooperative (consensus: great idea with entrepreneurial potential), and far too many bad and predictable puns about a sexting congressman named Weiner.

Jackson's Java also boasts a ghost, a beautiful and innocent spirit with a story as tragic and compelling as any on you'll hear on those "ghost walks" so popular these days from Asheville to the Tower of London.

UNC Charlotte student Irina "Ira" Yarmolenko once served espresso and ice cream here. You'll find Ira's picture on top of a memory book, with white clouds pasted on the faded black cover, just to your right beside Jackson Java's cash register.

On a May morning in 2008, just three days after her 20th birthday, Ira made her last visit to Jackson's Java. Shortly after noon that same day, a couple found her lifeless body on the banks of the Catawba River near Mount Holly. Police charged a pair of cousins with strangling the young woman. One defendant died unexpectedly on the eve of his trial, the other was convicted and is spending his life behind bars.

In a past era, Ira's tragic tale might have inspired a folk song or poem. Today, she has a Facebook page in her memory - and her book at Jackson's, where no one has forgotten her.

"I started working after you left," writes Rebecca in the book. "You've really left your mark on these people, the people at Jackson's. You're very much missed. I think even I miss you. ..."

Jackson's Java is exactly the kind of place Robert Putnam talks about in his book "Bowling Alone," a "third place" besides home or work where strangers can meet and transform into a community. With a distinctly local history and personality, freely flowing conversations and coffee, and even a haunting and lovely ghost, Jackson's Java is the just the kind of place University City needs.

And the coffee is very good, too.