Charles Virgil Harris, an eternally optimistic young man who has grown up in Hendry County, known to locals as Charlie, is the owner of Bridge Street Coffee and Tea Co. It’s a popular, little coffee shop in downtown LaBelle that’s normally bustling with activity from both locals and tourists. Often used as a morning meeting spot, always a great place for lunch and good conversation, it’s that place where you’ll always run into someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with but haven’t had the time. ‘Round here, the shop is known simply as “Charlie’s.”
Lately, just like many of our favorite, local, small businesses, during the novel era of social distancing and staying-safer-at-home, it’s been an anxious struggle. Charlie is no stranger to struggles- in life and in business, and it seems that nothing can stop him.
“My father, a Cattle Crew leader, cowboy, cow-hunter for Alico, committed suicide in 1992, leaving my mother, at 27 years old, a single mother with two boys. Myself, age 5, and my brother age 2. As is often the case for children from families rocked by such jarring events, I had to ‘grow up’ a lot sooner than many of my peers. Which has been both a blessing and a curse. I avoided a lot of pitfalls that youthful ignorance can lead to, but simultaneously forfeited a certain amount of my childhood and just being a kid.”
Charlie was raised between the house that his mother made into a home for their little family just outside of town, his grandmother’s family homes, and his grandfather’s home on 20 acres, that included an alligator farm, he says, “In addition to the time spent with my mother’s parent’s who were huge influences in my upbringing, we as frequently as possible took trips to spend time with my dad’s parents and family in Arcadia.”
“Although times had changed dramatically from the era in which my mother grew up, and in even more dramatic contrast to the era in which my grandparents grew up, coming to terms with being gay in LaBelle in the early 2000’s was still a terrifying realization. Only a few short years before, had been Matthew Shepard’s death, I was living in a rural farming, ag-based community, and most of my family was pretty rural. I was at times fearful, luckily what would turn out to be an ungrounded fear, but very real at the time, for my own safety and for that of my younger brother. I bore the brunt of some harsh verbal assaults, both directly and in the form of untraceable shouts in crowded hallways, but was luckily spared the physical assaults incurred by so many others in so many other places,” he goes on, “Since that time, the world, and LaBelle has changed dramatically… and while still far from perfect, it is continuing to do so in so many ways.”
“I took over the shop in 2007, a year ahead of the 2008 recession and two months before my 21st birthday. Somehow, through a bullish stubbornness that has refused to quit, though I have more than once considered it, and an appreciation of this little town that I don’t always feel like I fit in. That’s more from my own internal filtering than anything particular that has been said or done to me. I am still here,” says Charlie. “I try to savor and appreciate a child-like sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and optimism. At times that has been the best, if not the only way, to combat the darkness in so much of the world that we are all too often as adults being beaten down by, feeling discouraged by, or feeling defeated by.”
When asked who has influenced him the most, without hesitation he answers, “Hands down, my mother. It was only a couple of years ago, when I was facing some personal challenges of my own, that it dawned on me just how young she was when faced with what could’ve easily destroyed almost anyone- my father’s death. It really put the things I was struggling with into perspective. She not only survived, but overcame by leaps and bounds, and did so while being both parents to my brother and I. Eliminating any doubt, throughout the course of our raising and after such a loss, that we were loved, we would always be supported by her, and that our being happy would never cease to be her greatest wish for each of us.”
Charlie eventually wants to write, he says, “A book, short stories, fiction, non-fiction, I haven’t yet decided which or if there might be a little bit of all of the above. The shop has been the source of a lot of the inspiration for this because it does just that. It provides a place where people from starkly contrasting backgrounds may and often do come together and break bread while exchanging little bits of who they are with one another. I have been given the honor and privilege of seeing a great many people who would have otherwise never spoken a word to each other become lifelong friends.”
For now, he is focusing on helping his beloved community through the tough times we are currently facing. He initiated a fundraising effort via GoFundMe, he explains, “Not just to combat the more immediate economic impacts being felt by Bridge Street Coffee & Tea, but for others in the surrounding area as well. While many government based stimulus options for both individuals and businesses are being proposed and discussed, for many individuals and businesses time is of the essence. My plan and intention with this campaign, admittedly a lofty one, will be to assist other small operations and individuals in the community that, like BSC&TCo. Operate as much like family units, as they do business associates and team members.” He further explains, “With the money raised l will be able to give my own employees some peace of mind and security in their jobs as they so give me when I entrust them with my ‘baby’, I want nothing more than for their concerns, as well as those of so many others in the community, to be more focused on taking care of their own health and that of their families. Not on whether or not they will have a job in a month.”
“Over the last 12 plus years, Bridge Street Coffee & Tea Company has been known as many things to the many different people it serves. To some we are simply a coffee shop, to some we are more a restaurant, to some we are a satellite office, conference room, meeting place, or study space. To some we are simply a hangout, the nature of each visit being unique and special to the individual. While some would say we are unlike any other place in the area, I have come to feel that we would be more aptly described as somewhat of a mini-representation of the whole of LaBelle, an incredibly diverse mix of so many different age groups, social echelons, career fields, and political points of view. Each offering its own take, having its own place, and contributing it’s own little twist to this amazing little community. This is a campaign for operations and the individuals that keep them going that make this community as special as it is, the operations that collaboratively make this community my home,” Charlie writes in the GoFundMe’s description, “It is with immense gratitude that I thank you for the support that has sustained us to this point, and equally so in advance for anything you can and are willing to offer in this uncertain time.”
Bridge Street Coffee and Tea Co. is located at 23 Fort Thompson Ave. in LaBelle. Currently you can place take out orders online at: bridgestreetcoffeeandteacompany.com or by calling 863-674-0104. Temporarily the shop’s pick-up window hours are: Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. and Saturday from 8:00 a.m.- 1:00 p.m. Check out their Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/JavaCharlies/ for the Soup or the Day and other delicious daily specials!