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End of an Institution?

Ambiguous closure of Gilette's Coffee leaves residents saddened and confused.

When McLean resident Walter Steblez dropped by Gilette's Coffee in the Great Falls Village Center last Sunday, he was stunned to find its doors locked, its lights dimmed and its stools stacked. A farewell letter announcing Dec. 17 as Gilette's last day of business was taped to the door, and as Steblez was reading, he was greeted by owners Beth and Buddy Harris.

"We fought the good fight," said Buddy Harris.

Steblez inquired if the closure was the result of high rent costs, but Buddy Harris simply said "no, it wasn't because of that," but did not elaborate. Steblez said he was extremely disappointed by the news.

"I would drive all the way from McLean just to get my coffee here," said Steblez. "And every year we would come here and buy fabulous baskets of really great stuff to send to family for the holidays — it's such a shame because not only did they have friendly service, but the coffee was exceptional."

Husband and wife team Buddy and Beth Harris operated Great Falls' only coffee shop for the last 17 years. Last week, they were informed by Great Falls Village Center lease owners Carl M. Freeman Associates, that Sunday, Dec. 17 would be the last day of business for Gilette's — however, the situation has been affected by an unexpected tragedy.

"We're still trying to figure everything out," said Beth Harris. "There's a lot going on and we're not sure what we're going to do yet."

BETH HARRIS said there are currently several factors affecting the status of Gilette's — the most primary of which is the unexpected death of Carl M. Freeman Associates President and CEO, Joshua M. Freeman last Thursday. Joshua Freeman died in a fatal helicopter accident that occurred on Thursday evening, Dec. 13, near Dagsboro, Del. He had traveled to a business event in the Washington D.C. metro area, and was leaving an annual company celebration with business associates and employees.

A statement on the Carl M. Freeman Associates web site said "Josh will be deeply missed by all who were fortunate enough to experience his tremendous generosity, leadership, and friendship."

Joshua Freeman is survived by his wife Michelle and three children, as well as his mother, Virginia Freeman and three sisters. He was 42. Carl M. Freeman Associates did not return calls to The Connection at press time.

Thus, the fate of Gilette's Coffee may not be as sealed as it was this time last week. On Monday, Dec. 18, Mike Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue Irish Pub, hosted a morning coffee for the regular patrons of Gilette's. Kearney said that approximately 20 people showed up for the informal tribute, and that they all discussed the new sign that was posted on the door of Gilette's that morning.

"They said that there's a new sign on the door that says 'we are not closing, we are just closing for the holidays,'" said Kearney.

RESIDENTS who read the farewell letter that had been on the door of Gilette's for the last week expressed sadness about the end of what many call "a Great Falls institution."

"This is a terrible blow – not only to our friends Beth and Buddy — but to their many faithful and adoring customers over the past 17 years," said local resident Patricia Budwig, director of Starshine Children's Theater in Great Falls. "As a fellow independent 'mom-and-pop' business founder, it is painful for me to watch the outcome — one more time — of citizens who choose to follow a different path than the obvious, prescribed corporations and franchises."

Susan La Pierre said that Gilette's was "our community's version of 'Cheers.'"

"You knew you'd always see a friend or neighbor, but especially the smiling faces of Buddy, Beth, Jim and Ashleigh," said La Pierre. "They are a wonderful family, and we feel honored to know them — my husband and I already miss them."

Douglas Dear, a patron of Gilette's for the last 13 years, said that he has heard that a national chain like Starbucks might take over the lease.

"It is sad when a neighborhood institution leaves to be replaced with a national chain," said Dear. "Not only did Gilette's have great coffee and pastries, but they became friends with hundreds — if not thousands — of Great Falls residents."

Dear said that Buddy and Beth Harris supported countless local causes, and gave free coffee to the Great Falls Library every Saturday.

"It was a place to find out what was happening in the community and see your neighbors," said Dear. "A new coffee shop may occupy the same location and physical space, but it will never replace Gilette's."

Suzie Bailey and her family moved to Great Falls one year ago, and Bailey said that she will always remember Gilette's Coffee as "the sort of place that made us feel like we already belonged to a new community family."

"We met our real estate woman for coffee there, hired our first nanny, attended school event planning sessions, and ran in for a quickies on the way to away tennis matches," said Bailey. "We will definitely miss the friendly greetings from the staff and hearing Buddy call out to my 'little angels,' when I had the kids in tow and we were running late to school — which was most days."

Bailey said a plain bagel with cream cheese and chocolate milk was her family's typical morning order.

"I just told my 4-year-old that Gilette's was closing, and after convincing her that they were not 'just taking a rest' she said, 'but mom, how am I going to get my breakfast?'" said Bailey. "I guess my snooze button will have to retire along with the folks at Gilette's."

Meanwhile, Gilette's may be "just taking a rest." The future of Gilette's remains a mystery as residents await further word from Beth and Buddy Harris.