A college campus without copious amounts of strong, hot espresso would be like a rainforest without rain. The entire idea would collapse in a sleepy heap. As a result, there are plenty of options for students and staff to get their caffeine fix across campus.
But there is one purveyor of coffee that was on this campus before Aramark ran the dining halls, before the Starbucks empire built its outpost in Artzen Hall, even before hipsters were called hipsters. This Western institution is known simply as “The Coffee Lady.”
The espresso machine wails from within The Coffee Lady’s stand on Vendor’s Row. The stands have been a revolving door for different local food vendors over the decades, but The Coffee Lady has remained.
Christy Vega runs the machine with quick, practiced motions and a smile. Six years ago, she purchased The Coffee Lady stand from a friend. That friend, based on her own research, claimed to be the fifteenth Coffee Lady. That makes Vega number 16.
“I love coffee, I always have. It’s a big part of my life, even without the coffee stand. But I love being able to be here,” Vega said.
Originally from Silverdale, Wash., Vega started classes at Western 12 years ago, graduating with a degree in psychology. Like many Western grads, Vega was keen to stay in Bellingham a little while longer because as she said, “It’s the dream, right?”
The Coffee Stand provided an opportunity for Vega to stick around a little longer.
“When I graduated, my son was 10 months old,” she said. “I ended up buying this from a friend, and it was nice to be able to do this in the meantime and kind of figure out where I want to go eventually.”
“Eventually” might include law school, but for now Vega is happy to continue to be a part of this campus.
“I love how inclusive Western is. I came here a dozen years ago and I felt welcome. It seems like there’s a wide variety of people, ideas and everything It’s just a great place to be,” she said.
Some of Vega’s more interesting moments during her tenure as The Coffee Lady included making a Tech N9ne bouncer a coffee drink which she said was “seven shots of espresso, a third of bottle of sugar -free German chocolate cake syrup, and a little bit of cream and that was it. Yeah, that was his drink.”
She also made a cup of coffee for poet, writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie when he visited the campus in 2011. He had a muffin as well, she said.
Vega said she’s not too good at remembering names, but while driving around downtown she regularly recognizes customers by their usual drink. She said she’ll drive through downtown, “it’s like, ‘oh, it’s the triple tall mocha!’”
The Coffee Lady’s coffee is commonly touted by students and professors as the best on campus, but Vega was quick to shy away from any such designation.
“I’d say it’s my favorite coffee on campus… I try to do my best,” she said.
Vega had never worked as a barista until she purchased the stand, but after six years she feels she’s doing alright. She only plans to continue as The Coffee Lady for another couple of years, before starting the search for the next person to hold the name. And for those who are wondering, yes, there has been at least one man who has served as The Coffee Lady.
Vega isn’t too worried about finding a replacement. Referencing Rob Reiner’s 1987 classic “The Princess Bride,” she said that really, The Coffee Lady is “kind of like the Dread Pirate Roberts, you know?”
Both, let’s hope, are immortal.