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Residents scramble to save local coffee shop

NORCROSS - Bill Luebben didn't charge his customers extra to talk to friends. There was no cost for holding a business meeting at his coffeehouse. Mothers weren't expected to pay admission to bring their kids to story time on Wednesday mornings.

Luebben did charge a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee in the morning or maybe a glass of wine at night, but his customers could get those anywhere.

What the Northern Star Coffeehouse in Norcross offered that they couldn't get elsewhere was a sense of community that cost them nothing, Luebben said.

When word got out last week that the store might be closing its doors this Saturday, customers and city officials began searching for ways to keep their local coffee shop open.

Luebben said he listened to proposals Thursday by several groups interested in continuing Northern Star's operations.

"As of now, we haven't come to a decision," Luebben said. "But we're close."

Skip Nau, chairman of the Norcross Downtown Development Authority, said Thursday his organization has served as a middle man between Luebben and those groups. Nau said the coffeehouse remaining open is in the downtown's best interest.

One effort has been led by customers Dwayne and Rachael Bassett and Jared Ponchot, who own Sprocket Creative, a Norcross-based computer graphics business. The group created a Web site July 20 - www.savenorthernstar.com - to raise funds for the store.

"It's more than a coffeehouse," Bassett said. "It's a little heartbeat in the center of the city, and if it goes away we lose a big part of this city."

Rachael Bassett said Thursday the Web site has raised $5,000 so far. The money will sit in a PayPal account and will be given to the coffee shop if it continues under the same name and same philosophy, Dwayne Bassett said. If not, it will be refunded.

Kandace Schrimsker, whose family attended the coffeehouse regularly before moving to Peachtree City, committed to give $20 a month for six months.

"It kind of feels like a family here," said Schrimsker, who said she was heartbroken to hear Northern Star might close. "It's a coffeehouse version of 'Cheers.' You know all the regulars."

But some people, including Luebben, have a hard time seeing how contributions or a change in ownership will change Northern Star's bottom line.

"I've had several proposals from people all week long on ways to keep it open or all kind of things," Luebben said. "Some would be short-term fixes, but what we need is a long-term solution. A short-term fix is good, but it doesn't fix the underlying problem of not drawing enough people."

Whether the business remains open or not, Luebben said he needs to step away from it for a while. Since it opened three years ago, it's been his full-time job and then some. But moving out of the spotlight isn't an admission of failure for Luebben.

"The purpose of it was to create human interaction," Luebben said. "It's created a lot of that here with people who were neighbors, but didn't really know each other. I've really enjoyed that."