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A Great Spot for a Coffee Shop

Jan Hearne • Feb 20, 2012 at 9:01 AM

An online quiz brought Sara Dalcher to Johnson City from the Washington, D.C.-area. The diplomat’s daughter, who has lived all over the world, was looking for the perfect place to open a coffee shop, her next life adventure.

To find the right location, Sara went to the website findyourspot.com and answered a series of questions about desired climate, recreational opportunities, cultural activities and more.

“Tri-Cities came up on a list of 10 possible places,” Sara said. It fit her need for a good climate that was conducive to coffee drinking (Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., were on the list, too, but she ruled them out based on their hot and humid weather); access to “the great outdoors”; a downtown area with affordable spaces; a Monday through Friday customer base; and reasonable proximity to airports.

Her first trip to the area was in spring, not a bad time at all to “meet” Northeast Tennessee. “Spring here is knockout beautiful,” Sara said. She and her daughter, Victoria, were impressed.

Decisions were made; plans were made; plans fell through. Victoria had hoped to sell her coffee shop in Pittsburgh and make the move with her mom, but the shop didn’t sell. Sara forged ahead alone. She grew up moving and adapting to different cultures, languages and locales.

Wanderlust is woven into Sara’s family’s DNA, going back at least two generations. Sara’s grandfather was a naval engineer in Switzerland who studied in England, where he met his wife. The two immigrated to the United States, sailing separately because they hadn’t yet married. Family lore has it they were met on the docks by a minister and were immediately wed.

Sara’s dad was chief information officer for the United States Information Service. While he was posted to the state department in Vienna, Austria, after World War II, he met his wife. “Mum,” as Sara calls her, had joined the Women’s Army Corps when the war started and was sent to New Guinea. After the war, she wanted to take part in the reconstruction of Europe, signing up as a civilian. “Mum set out her terms and landed in Vienna,” Sara said.

It was there her parents met through mutual friends and were married. Vienna is also Sara’s birthplace, but that’s not necessarily where she’s from.

“The worst question you can ask a diplomat’s child is ‘where are you from?’” Sara said. “We have no idea. Mum said she was raising us to be citizens of the world.”

Sara went to nursery school in Berlin. When her family returned to America, Sara and her brother didn’t speak English very well and didn’t understand why the other children didn’t speak German. Early in 1963, the family moved to India.

“It was the era of ‘Camelot.’ Kennedy was on the throne, and America could do no wrong,” she said of the Indian attitude toward Americans. She describes her life there as magical. At the time, India, which had gained its independence from Britain in 1947, still was “more English than England.”

Five years into their stay in India, Sara’s dad was assigned to Vietnam. Her mother had three choices: return to America, move to Bangkok or say in India. They were settled, had friends and knew the country, so they stayed.

The idyll ended in 1971 when they returned to the United States. “We came back to a country at war with itself,” Sara said, referring to the riots and protests of the times. Her parents put Sara and her brother in D.C. public schools, where they were “mugged weekly” and had their lunch money stolen. When Mum found out, they transferred to a private school in Maryland.

Having grown up on her mother’s stories of “Army fun,” it felt right for Sara to join the Army reserve while she was in college. She served as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, S.C., in the summer. Turns out, Sara’s mother was not happy about her decision. There was a war on, she said.

Sara’s choice also presented problems at her college. Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., is a Quaker school, and Quaker beliefs do not include war or the mechanics of war. “So, obviously a Quaker college was not the place for me,” Sara said.

But the Army Reserve was. “I thought it was a terrific thing to do. My summers were spent at the Pentagon or pushing men at Fort Jackson, and I loved it. I was really good at drill and ceremonies,” she said.

She met and fell in love with her husband at Fort Jackson. He was the training NCO at the White House.

The couple lived in D.C., Hawaii and San Francisco. Their daughter was born. After 20 years, the marriage ended.

“In all that to-ing and fro-ing, I came back to D.C.,” Sara said. There she worked for 13 years in the Washington office of the San Francisco Convention Bureau. In 2005, she ran a weeklong conference in Mozambique.

The woman who had circled the globe at least three times before she was 10 decided it was time for another move. “Moving to me is ‘oh, boy. What’s next?’” she said.

Thus, the quiz, and thus, Johnson City.

On March 1, 2008, Sara opened her coffee shop, Coffee & Tea Haven, at Nelson Fine Art. A year later, she moved to her current location at 300 E. Main St. Her shop is at the rear of the lobby in King Centre, complete with exposed brick walls and a fireplace. There is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, a newspaper, free WiFi, coffee, hot chocolate, snacks, sodas and tea. Her bagels are brought in from Bristol, and her son-in-law Ace is now on board, making paninis.

The shop is open from 8 a.m to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Asked if she made the right decision, Sara said, “Johnson City lived up to my expectations as a whole. People absolutely made it seem so welcoming and so possible. In the world’s worst economy, I am still open.”

Victoria made it to Johnson City, too, but not as planned. This past summer Sara was diagnosed with leukemia, and she needed a helping hand or two or four. After a harrowing few months, she is doing better, and Sara has an eye toward the future.

“I think I have another move left,” she said.

No doubt, she does.

Reach Jan Hearne at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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