Editor's note: This story is the first in Madison Commons' series of profiles focused on the current climate of economic uncertainty and the 2020 election cycle.
Nestled on the notoriously laidback Williamson Street between vibrant sushi shops, organic bakeries and hyper-hyper-local theatre sits Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse. In a space uniquely positioned in the heart of Madison’s evergrowing artsy district, bandmates Stephanie Rearick and John Hain are running an alternative coffee shop complete with a gallery, rotating graffiti wall, and a jam-packed calendar of performances and events.
“It's always been about cultural expression and community building, more than specifically just coffee,” said Rearick. “Although we've always had really good coffee.”
By limiting their use of animal products and sourcing their treats from other local companies, Rearick and Mother Fool’s have curated a homey and socially-conscious environment for their customers since taking the reins in 1995.
The coronavirus pandemic is hitting small entrepreneurs like Rearick particularly hard. Uncertainties regarding how to continue supporting staff with quarantine periods continuously being extended make these scary times to operate a small business.
Mother Fool’s has adapted by closing down all operations, leaning on virtual gift card sales and pre-arranged bean pick-up orders until the public health risk settles down.
Luckily for Rearick, she has a side gig that is more important than ever as the pandemic upends our economy and labor systems.
“I have been an activist more than anything else in mind, for like professional and avocational life,” said Rearick, who first came to Madison while working for the environmental organization, Greenpeace. “Having really come to understand how core the globalized capitalist economy is to the destruction of every system, in every system, and everything I care about, I just needed to find an economic path. So that led me to found the Dane County Time Bank.”
In collaboration with the Mutual Aid Network — a model of self-sufficient and regenerative economic activity — the time bank allows for folks to exchange services for time expended, rather than cash.
After putting in hours driving around their neighbors, leading wellness-related activities, or engaging with youth, time bank members can exchange their work for gently-used clothing, furniture, books and more at Maxine’s TimeBank Store or receive a service from another member.
In recent weeks, members have also served by completing tasks interrupted or complicated by the pandemic for those who do not feel comfortable leaving their homes.
While Rearick is a business owner, arguably one of the most capitalist-centric professions, she is not naive to this model’s flaws — particularly as the pandemic exposes how the valuation of different types of labor leaves certain groups of people extremely vulnerable in crisis.
“I think that this is actually a super crappy aspect of our society; however, I can take advantage of it,” said Rearick, noting the seemingly contradictory nature of her work. “You get like a certain kind of automatic respect when you're a business owner, because it reflects a lot of aspects of privilege and messed-up valuation culture.”
Yet, in keeping the shop’s values consistent and goods high-quality and locally-sourced, Rearick views Mother Fool’s as less of a business, and more of a cultural hub with a boost of caffeine.
“I've always been able to survive by bartering and sharing because it's very clear what we have to offer, because we get to have a building with coffee in it,” said Rearick. “But everybody has something to offer.”
This pandemic will undoubtedly impact the business model of plenty of small, neighborhood joints, and Rearick is fully prepared to overturn some of their practices.
“We have to grapple with our existential crisis, first... It isn't possible to have an actually sustainable business under the terms that we've had to operate under,” said Rearick. “I would love to have Mother Fool’s reopen. And I would love for it to reopen under better terms than we've ever been able to before.”
People in Madison and beyond will all need to adjust their lifestyles in the time following quarantine, and Rearick has a few ideas on how to maximize the community’s potential outside of the traditional employment model.
“I think the new normal should — and can, and we need to make sure it will — look like [understanding that] everyone does meaningful work right where they are,” said Rearick. “People know how to organize themselves to do work at the tiniest level and at the most complex level, like being able to plug into each other's projects and see a way for people to help them accomplish what they want. I see this [new normal] as being an interconnected network of networks operating on a very small, very local scale.”