CIA Café stands for “coffee, ice-cream, and art” and Jeannie pronounces it like, “see-ya.” It’s in a shining new building in a quiet part of South Portland, around the corner from Mill Creek in a neighborhood some people call Knightville. It’s a neighborhood on the rise, driven by people like Jeannie. Originally an artist, these days she manages her coffee shop café, filled with local art. She’s known for embodying a brilliant, magnetic cheer. She even gets around in the most cheerful way possible: on roller skates.
TELL ME ABOUT THE FIRST MOMENT THAT YOU CAME TO THIS NEIGHBORHOOD.
My husband was exploring South Portland. He was jogging and came here, and later said, “Jeannie, you have to check out this neighborhood. Wait ’til you see it.” So we took the dinghy from Portland and we tied it up at the dock down here at the Thomas Knight Park. We walked up the street and it was in August and it was hot and sunny and there were no cars, no people, no sidewalks, no trees, no beautiful streetlights that you see now. It was just dirt. The front of this whole building was covered with dust. It looked like a movie set. It really did, it looked like a little lost village. But you could tell that they had good plans coming, but it just looked like it needed- it had so much potential.
WHAT WAS THE DECISION LIKE FOR YOU TO OPEN UP THIS CAFÉ?
My husband worked in Scarborough, and we lived in Salisbury, Mass., and he was commuting for some time; he was commuting for a couple of years. That’s an hour each way of commute and one day we sat down and did the math on how many hours he sat in the car and I thought, “Well I really love where I live here in Salisbury.” I was pretty connected to the community and I did a lot, but I thought it would be more important to change it up and try something new. And when I saw this vacant space it looked like it needed me.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON THE COMBO OF FOOD AND ART?
Well I’m an artist and I wanted to open a gallery but nobody would come if I just sold art! And who doesn’t like coffee and ice cream? I love coffee, I love ice cream, I love people, I love meeting people and I think it’s important that every person out there should be subjected to fine art. Not everybody has time to go to a gallery or a museum. I love it when people come in for a cup of coffee and soon they’re spending hundreds of dollars on art! And it’s all local art, so it’s a win-win. I pay a lot of vendors and running a business is tough. You have to keep track of so much, but it’s pretty rewarding when you write your checks out to your local artists. That’s one thing that I don’t mind signing!
TELL ME ABOUT THE VARIETY OF ARTISTS THAT YOU WORK WITH.
Well, we have lots of people that make really interesting jewelry. I have a woman who does all t-shirts and screen printing. I have people that make jeans: they take jeans apart and they put in pieces of fabric. People come in and they’re just kind of surprised by what they see. We’ll have a $3,000 painting or a $20 print, a $5 card. What else? We have lamps that are made from old gum ball machines or an old wheel from a factory. Everything is re-purposed! These artists put their passion into their work and it’s nice to share it.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR OWN ART.
I paint and I do mixed media. I always did — I really love doing portraits and figurative work but I like to jump around from one thing to another: I never stick to one medium or one subject matter. I love doing portraits and figures but sometimes before I open the shop, I’ll just start doing a seascape or an abstract or something fun. I need to fulfill that need to paint. And sometimes the colors are wild and sometimes they’re very conservative. Kind of like me! I’m a flip-flopper, I don’t stick to one of anything! The only thing that I stick to for the last 30 years is my husband. With everything else, I have to change it up!
TELL ME ABOUT THE ROLLER SKATES.
I grew up roller skating. I’m one of 15 kids, my mom and dad raised 15 children, and we grew up on a pond in Massachusetts. And when I wasn’t ice skating I was roller skating. I feel very comfortable on roller skates and it’s fun! When I first opened CIA I had no idea that I would be roller skating. I ran CIA Café for about 8 months and one day — it was starting to get busy: business was picking up and we were progressively growing, the way that I hoped it would be. That one day I was a little bored and I put on my skates and everybody looked at me like I was a magician or something! They were taking pictures of me and I thought, “What’s the big deal?! It’s just skates!” Because they feel so natural on me, people just couldn’t believe it! I think people get a kick out of it because they think I’m crazy!
WHEN I FIRST SHOWED UP TO SEE YOU AND YOU SKATED OFF TO MAKE COFFEE OR SOMETHING IT WAS LIKE MAGIC. IT WAS REALLY COOL TO SEE THAT.
I have fishermen that come in every morning and they’re 90, 88 years old, and I have young people, old people, college kids, young moms, empty-nesters, I get such a variety and it’s so cool to see everybody’s reaction to the skates. But it’s really cool to have so many different people come into the café on a daily basis and it’s always somebody fresh and new and then you see your familiar faces. It’s been really great, I love it.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THE REGULARS THAT YOU SEE.
I love it. When I first moved to Knightville I didn’t know one person. I was opening a coffee shop and I had never ever done that before so it was really scary for me. I had to take big risks: financially doing this, opening it up, learning everything I could about coffee. But the regulars that came in when I first opened a lot of them still come in and they seem to be always appreciative and sometimes they’re impressed and sometimes they just come in, get their stuff, and they’re happy that I’m here. I’ve become really good friends – they almost feel like a big family. It’s really nice. They come in and sometimes they’ll tell their friends so their friends will come in and their friends will say, “So and so told me about this.” I meet people from all over. A lot of people from Scarborough come, Limerick, Maine, Cape Elizabeth on the other side of South Portland. Because we don’t do a lot of advertising, I think a lot of it is word of mouth. The word gets out. We really take pride in our sandwiches and in our coffee. I studied with Wicked Joe (actually his name is Bob)– I went up to Topsham and he and his assistant spent a lot of time with me and they really helped me learn espresso and coffee and ratios.
WHAT DO THE PEOPLE IN THE CAFÉ MEAN TO YOU?
I love my regulars. I can tell you stories. I have fishermen that come in that are 90 and 80 and I have ladies that come in that are really older and you can tell they have are so wise. You can just tell by looking in their eyes they’ve been there. And they’re so sweet and they’re gracious. They have grace. I think grace is a nice thing to strive for too. Grace and Balance. Those are two things that it’s tough finding those. When you have 11 brothers it’s hard to have grace!
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAMILY.
I have two boys. Billy and Bobby. I’ve been married for almost 30 years to a great guy and I am very, very lucky. My boys are healthy, happy for the most part, and I have a beautiful grandson. I worked hard for everything I have, I busted my ass for many years, I am the only one of 15 kids to go to college and have a degree. I had to break the chain and go from high school dropout to GED to “Let’s really get something done here! Let’s kick some ass!” And I did all this while I was raising kids. I got married when I was 18. We love each other a lot. We’ve both changed so much over the years, it’s pretty amazing.
IF THE VERSION OF YOURSELF THAT DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL WERE TO SEE YOU NOW, WHAT WOULD THAT EXPERIENCE BE LIKE?
I’d love to see her! I think she’d be very proud of me. Because I’m still proud of me. Everybody has their story and — When I met my husband, he was on a motorcycle with a beard, his nickname was “Badass.” Now look at him! “Mr. Salt and Pepper Khaki Man.” He would pick me up on a motorcycle — I was just about to be arrested, and I jumped on his bike and said, “Can you pop a wheelie?” and here we are. And that’s the really short version of how we met!
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE STORIES YOU’VE HEARD AT THE CAFÉ?
I have some really good stories. You have to come in and meet the fishermen and hear their stories. Can I tell you about Leeland? He’s 90 years old, he grew up on Cliff Island and he’s a very sweet gentleman. He was a lobsterman his whole life with his cousin David and they both come in and they both recently put their wives in nursing homes and when they come in the morning if I don’t have my roller skates on they walk out! They come in and I have sticky buns from Standard Bakery and David, this little guy, so cute, comes up to the counter. I say “What would you like?” and he says “One of them there female sticky buns!” I said, “What?!” And he said, “No nuts!” Anyway, Leeland tells me one day, he asked me how I met my husband Bill and I told him a little bit nicer version than the one I told you and he said “Well, I grew up on the island and I had a brother that was born that died before me because he wouldn’t take my mother’s milk, he was really young. When I was born the same thing happened to me and when I was a week old I was dying and I needed milk so they brought me to this woman on the island who had a little baby girl and she was on one side and I was on the other and that’s how I met my wife.” I started crying. I get chills. And if you heard that story coming out of this man’s mouth, I melted. And then David told me how he met his wife and that was funny.
WHAT IS KNIGHTVILLE?
Knightville is this awesome little neighborhood nestled right here in South Portland. If you’re coming from Portland right over the bridge and you take your first left, where it says ‘Marketplace,” if you head over towards — on the other side of Mill Creek, It’s a neighborhood where a lot of these people have grown up here. We have a lot of new people moving in and we have new condos. So we have young people, we have retirees, we have empty-nesters. The Bridgeway Restaurant is here, the Griffin Club is a bar down the street, which is here, which has a ton of nostalgia and history. Smaha’s Legion Square Market, they’ve been here forever. And this street that we’re sitting on right now used to lead right into the port. Then they re-did the bridge and it kind of turned into a dead end. So that’s why everything became slow and quiet and the city kicked in and made these 8-foot-wide sidewalks so we can have outdoor seating. They have this plan that a lot of people didn’t think would ever come true, they said, “Who’s going to go to Knightville and sit outside?”
HOW DO YOU ADD COLOR AND FUN TO YOUR LIFE? I SEE IT EVERYWHERE HERE.
Well, by cutting up cucumbers! I like carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes, those are pretty! Since I’m not I’m not painting, all the walls in CIA are shades of grey and I add pops of color and mix things up and it creates an element of surprise and it just feels right. Sometimes if you have too much color it just doesn’t jive. So I think you can’t have light without dark and you can’t have bright without grey. Every day just make it, do it.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE?
Happiness. Being happy. Just being happy and helpful. Doing what you love.
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
Never skate around the rotary carrying brownies! Everybody stops for you and then you hit a pebble and the whole thing comes down! It can be painful on not only your elbows and your hips but your pride.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Being able to do what I do.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE?
Balance! There’s no balance in my life. I do strive for balance. When I work with people all day it isn’t art. I like to work with my hands and I love making coffee and espresso and making food but I really love creating, transforming, painting and using my creative side. I guess I’m not utilizing what I should right now.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
When I make somebody smile. If they come in sad and they leave a little happier and when you just do something nice for someone. Or they do something nice for you. People come through and they could be happy, they could be sad, they could be lonely, they could have just put their wife in an old age home or they’re taking care of their mother who’s dying or their daughter who just died. Or they’re really happy! I like the happy ones! When they come in sad and they leave happier than when they came in or they’re surprised, they leave feeling better. That’s what I love. And I love inspiring people. Somebody said to me last week – she was about my age – she said “I just love everything about you, everything you do” and I said “Oh be quiet! You can do it.” She was just very appreciative and it made me feel really sweet but I don’t want her to feel inferior, I want her to feel good.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Well, I kind of already do. My mom always said “To each his own, I am my own, thank God I am me”. I’m sure somebody said that before her. Is that a motto or is that just a quote? Just be yourself and be true to who you are and that, I think, is important.
Find out more about the cafe: ciacafe.com