Students at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois always had a variety of choices when it came to getting their caffeine fix. I was no stranger to Java B&B in the MLK Student Union (I still can’t find a better scone…). There was Jitters & Bliss, and even Common Grounds for those students adventurous enough to drive to nearby Mattoon. When it came to local coffee shops, however, nothing beat the JAC.
Jackson Avenue Coffee, at 708 Jackson Avenue just off Charleston’s town square, was the brainchild of EIU alumni Ryan and Dulcy Dawson. They spent several months renovating the space before opening on Friday, April 26, 2002. Their intention was to create a friendly and relaxed environment where students could study and stay as long as they wanted. It was a fixture for students and local residents alike, and for at least one summer, was like my second home.
JAC was divided into two rooms, the front for the main coffee shop, and the back where patrons could play board games and where meetings and live events were held. Local artists displayed their artwork on the walls for sale on a rotational basis, and a few tables even doubled as chess and checkers boards. It was a fun, lively environment that became a showcase for Charleston’s creative community.
EIU students organized JAC’s first open mic night on August 18, 2005, and it was held every Thursday night from then on. It was a wonderful venue for local musicians to experiment, network, and hone their craft. My friend James was a regular fixture in the early 2010s, and later as a bassist for a band called Carlos Danger’s Inbox.
How do you recount all the nameless hours you’ve spent somewhere? All the fond memories and conversations blend together. I frequented Jackson Avenue Coffee from the beginning, but my addiction really took off in the summer of 2005. My entire social circle seemed to center on the place, and I felt like I was spending so much money there I was keeping it in business.
My friend Chris and I would sit on our laptops and talk for hours. Chris, a barista named Anne, a few other volunteers, and I started Coles County Buy Local to promote locally-owned businesses in the area. JAC is where I got the idea for my Midwestern art and culture magazine Black Oak Presents. Soon there was Keith, and Rachel, and Kyla (another barista). We were like a huge extended family. I even walked with the JAC crew (and their mascot–a coffee bean) in the homecoming parade.
Chai lattes were my first love, but Italian iced sodas were nice on a hot summer day. JAC used to serve a delicious hummus plate, with wedges of toasted pita bread, hummus, oil, and olives. If my memories of the summers of ’06 and ’07 in Charleston had a flavor, they would taste something like that.
In JAC’s first Yelp! review, user Geoff W. echoed my sentiments, saying: “Some of the best times if my life happened at this cafe. The owners Ryan and Dulcy are some of the greatest people you will ever meet. I remember spending hours on end hanging out at JAC when I was in university writing, studying, hangout out with friends or playing chess or any number of board games they have on reserve. Always a friendly crowd…”
At some point in the late 2000s, Ryan and Dulcy Dawson sold their coffee shop to a couple named Dan and Vicki Reible. I don’t recall a new owner before I left in 2008, but a Daily Eastern News article refers to Dan as “co-owner” in September 2010.
Over the next few years, JAC racked up $18,000 in unpaid state taxes and by 2012, it was in danger of closing. Thankfully, the community pulled through and raised over $19,000 in December 2012. “This is a direct correlation to how important that the JAC is to the community,” Dan Reible told the Daily Eastern News.
The DEN editorial board concurred, writing “There is more than just bricks, baristas and coffee beans that make up the JAC. A sense of community is a part of all the coffee shop does for and provides to students and residents alike.”
With Mattoon’s Common Grounds closed and soon to be a distant memory, it’s more important than ever for Charleston and Coles County residents and students at Eastern Illinois University to support this vibrant and community-centric coffee shop.
More than any other place in Charleston, Jackson Avenue Coffee came to define my college experience, from my circle of friends to my extracurricular activities and more. It’s weird going back, like returning to your childhood home that has a new owner. I expect to see familiar faces greeting me as they had every week for nearly four years. Instead, I feel like a stranger coming inside for the first time. But at least I know it’s still there, providing the same sense of community for a new generation.
- “Jackson Avenue Coffee celebrates 12 years of open-mic nights,” Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 7 Dec. 2017.
- “JAC surpasses $18,000 mark,” Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 5 Dec. 2012.
- “JAC captures Charleston’s unique feel,” Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 30 Sept. 2010.
- “Jackson Ave. offers more than coffee,” Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 9 Nov. 2006.
- Coffee shop provides ‘bar alternative’,” Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 25 April 2002.