Ghost Town

Ghost Town owner Elena Levin stands on the patio just outside of the coffee shop. Levin recently announced the coffee shop is closing its doors Saturday. (Courtesy photo)

For the past five-and-a-half years, the tiny triangular patio on Main Street and the little coffee shop tucked behind it offered much more than a menu. On any given day, it was a place to get some work done, have a casual business meeting or read a few pages of a good book. It was a small grocery, too: three-for-five avocados, organic bulk snacks, jars of chili crunch. Perhaps most of all, it was an invitation for human connection. Framed by a mural framed yet again by the mountains, friends hugged, chatted and sometimes cried. Strangers from all corners of the world connected. As toasts heaped with toppings and artful lattes circulated, life unfolded.

On Saturday at 6 p.m., Ghost Town will close its doors to the public permanently, bringing the tally of local eateries closing that day to two, as Taco del Gnar previously announced it’s closing on the same day. For owner Elena Levin, the decision to close the beloved local coffee shop was fraught with sadness but present too was a sense of relief.

The task of keeping the coffee shop running as the housing shortage reached acute levels and fueled the widespread struggle to hire and retain employees had simply become insurmountable. High school-aged employees returned to school. Other workers gave their notice, finally overwhelmed by the daily tsunami of customers who had become increasingly hostile and difficult throughout the pandemic, she said.

“It was just too much,” said Levin of the daily onslaught for both herself and employees.

While processing the situation with a friend, she said, her friend compared it to the Greek legend of Sisyphus, the mythic king doomed to endlessly roll a massive boulder up a mountain, slipping and falling during each attempt.

“There’s a feeling of relief, along with the sadness and the melancholy, that I don’t have to hold it together anymore,” she said.

Running a business has never been easy, but the nexus of influences culminating this summer made the situation feel “radically different” for Levin. Though the affordable housing shortage has been intensifying for years, the beginning of the end started, for Ghost Town, with the pandemic. Domestic tourism to outdoor destinations boomed, pushing small local restaurants like Ghost Town to capacity and beyond. The pandemic interrupted the supply chain, making it an ongoing battle to procure key items. As America's urban, white collar workforce went remote, many escaped city life and opted for idyllic small towns. Real estate skyrocketed, driving rents and home prices up.

By now, this narrative may feel familiar, but the upshot for Ghost Town was this: lines of would-be coffee seekers spilling onto the sidewalk everyday, 45-minute wait times for an order of avocado toast, the ceaseless mayhem of workers churning out coffee drinks with barely a chance to have a sip of water, much less cultivate the kind of meaningful interactions previously common with customers. More customers got angry at the long waits, angry at being asked to wear a mask. Tips dropped, as did worker morale.

“Mostly in this job I've felt equipped to handle whatever problems arose,” Levin said, reflecting on her five years in what she called her “dream job.”

“But it got to a point where doing my best wasn’t good enough anymore. This wasn't even a choice at a certain point, it was just a reality I had to grapple with.”

Aug. 28 is closing day, she said, because that was the last day that she could staff the coffee shop with enough people to keep it running.

“We don't have the workforce to run the town at this capacity,” she said.

The factors that led to closing, she emphasized, did not include a lack of community support or even financial difficulties. Though Levin remarked that expenses have gone up proportionately to the increase in business, the coffee shop has excelled as both a business and a community hub.

For manager Brandi Seeley, who began working at Ghost Town as a barista four years ago, the coffee shop was the place that knitted her into the fabric of the town and made the community feel like home. It was a place where people could hang out, a job where she could make toasts for customers and then chat with them while they ate it. All of that now feels like a distant dream.

Since the pandemic, she said, “I’ve never seen people be more rude, to the point of being verbally abusive. You ask people to wear a mask, they lose it. It used to be that my interactions with customers were largely positive. Now so many more people are impatient, demanding or blatantly rude and don’t tip.”

Seeley observed herself feeling routinely angrier at work, where once she had been happy.

“The constant demand got to be too much,” she said. “I’m not an angry person. It wasn’t fun anymore.”

Seeley and her partner have come back to work the summer season in Telluride for the past few years. Next year, she said, she thinks they simply won’t return.

For longtime customer Stephen Burns, who helped implement the espresso program at the coffee shop’s beginning under founder Meghann McCormick, seeing Ghost Town shutter its doors feels like a death knell.

“It’s the living room of the community,” he said of Ghost Town. “It’s the place you can go and sit down and run into your friends, the county commissioner, the guy that’s shoveling snow that day. It’s an inclusive place like that. You’d go to Ghost Town, bringing a book to read but knowing that you’re not actually going to read any pages because you're going to end up talking with your friends. That was the beauty of that place.”

Losing Ghost Town, he added, feels heartbreaking. He and his fiancée also plan to leave Telluride, the place they have called home collectively for 10 years.

While Levin, too, expressed heartbreak over the situation, she remained grateful for the experience of having a job she loved in a place she loved these past five years.

“This is the coolest thing I've ever done. I got to curate a space the way that I wanted to and people liked it,” she said, chuckling. “At the end of the day, I'm full of gratitude that I was able to make it work as long as I did.”