New Owner Wants to Be Devil’s Advocate
RIDGWAY – Eric Palumbo apologized as he turned his back to me, grinding the beans for my espresso. “Eventually I want to turn the espresso machine around,” he said, “move it over here [to the counter], have it face out.”
A convivial, 40-year-old native of Ogden, Utah, Palumbo kept up a steady patter with customers, even with his back to them, customers who came in to Cimarron Books and Coffee House on Sherman Street for their favorites: cappuccinos, lattes, Americanos.
He knows he has big shoes to fill. He just took over March 1 from the business’ founder, Ridgway literary impresario and Democratic Party stalwart Priscilla Peters, who has retired after 21 years at the helm.
“I love the interaction with people,” Palumbo said. “I’m already being absorbed into the community. I’ve been invited to jam [with local musicians]. I’m nervous, though. I’m not a fiddler.”
What Palumbo is is a “semi-pro” (his term) classical violinist. His father is a music professor and conductor of the orchestra at Weber State University in Ogden. Palumbo began playing professionally as a high school senior and continued to pursue music through college at Weber State and grad school in Illinois. “It’s a little like being a minor-league ballplayer. Triple A. How to make a living? You’ve got to have another job” to support your music.
That other job eventually turned into a career in financial services/insurance in the Denver area for about a dozen years. It was during this period that Palumbo took up skiing for the first time – and made a first fateful trip to Europe.
“My first cup of cappuccino was in the Rome airport, where you wouldn’t necessarily expect a great cup.” But it was rich and dark and exquisite. “That’s what I want to do here [in Ridgway],” he said. “A traditional, classic Italian thing. As opposed to the big, thin, over-frothy thing you get at....” His voice trailed off without having to name any American coffee chains. He also hopes to innovate. “Coffee has changed. This is the third wave now. I want to offer new brews, new ways to brew.”
Palumbo will continue Peters’ tradition of getting his beans from the master roasters at Steaming Bean in Telluride. (“They really know what they’re doing.”) That is where his longtime girlfriend lives, and works at Bootdoctors. Disenchanted with his life as a “salaryman” in Denver, he followed this girl to Telluride a few years ago, having never seen the place. The last few years, he has been living as a “ski bum,” all the while looking for the next thing.
“I saw Priscilla’s ad in The Watch, that the store was for sale. I came down and spied on the place a little bit, the way this is a real community hub. The idea of being the proprietor of that hub really appealed to me. And, of course, I want to put a little bit of me in it.”
Part of the new will be an expression of Palumbo’s non-partisan political outlook. Peters’ place was Obama headquarters for Ouray County and a regular campaign stop for every Democratic candidate from Congressman John Salazar to Governor John Hickenlooper. Palumbo is hoping to proffer a bigger tent.
“I hope that this will be an apolitical space. Come and talk and argue. That’s what coffeehouses have traditionally been.” He volunteered an anecdote from his first day on the job, March 1. “A man came in, and he was clearly a rancher. He said: ‘Are you a liberal?’ I want to be a devil’s advocate. I just learned from the conclave of cardinals [currently selecting a new Pope in Rome] that they always have one cardinal who argues against the favorite, the devil’s advocate.”
Oh, and books? “Yes. I like what Priscilla had going on, focusing on local authors, histories, guides, maps. I want to flesh it out a little more, add more fiction. That will be the big learning curve for me. I have yet to place my first book order.”