Ann Polachek, 54, and Bette Revoir, 71

  • Updated: November 5, 2011 - 10:28 PM

At Polly's Coffee Cove on St. Paul's East Side, music and a sense of community commingle.

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Bette Revoir, left, was the first customer and remains a regular at Ann Polachek's coffee shop, Polly's Coffee Cove, at 1382 Payne Avenue on St. Paul's East Side.

Photo: Curt Brown, Star Tribune

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You'll hear the tinkling of a piano on St. Paul's East Side if you walk around the corner of Payne and Cottage avenues on Friday afternoons.

Step inside Polly's Coffee Cove and Carol Watnemo is playing "Ol' Man River" while Paul Cocoanto leans over the piano and belts out the vocal with plenty of bravado.

"I call him 'Little Cupcake,' but you probably don't want to put that in the newspaper," says Bette Revoir, 71, who was the first customer when this coffee shop/time warp/community mecca opened five years ago.

"I actually walked in before they opened and saw a white Cadillac outside, so I figured I'd find some high-class fuddy-duddy in here," Revoir says. "Then I met Ann and she's wonderful and simple -- nothing highfalutin about her."

Ann Polachek, 54, a former paralegal, teacher and member of the Naval Reserve, owns Polly's. The car she called Angel belonged to her father. She named the coffee shop after her great-grandfather Max (Polly) Polachek, a jockey and cigar seller in Chicago whose offspring eventually moved up to Winona and then St. Paul.

Polachek never planned on opening a coffee shop in the space that housed Olson's Swedish grocery from 1921 to 1954, and then Hinz Bakery.

"Everybody needs a place to feel you belong," she says. "Everybody in here has a story."

As if on cue, City Council Member (and former St. Paul cop) Dan Bostrom strolls in and points to a framed tax document showing he earned $73 cleaning Hinz's pots and pans in 1956 on his first job.

"This place has become a gathering place unlike any other," he says. "I'm not sure if Ann is making any money, but she's having a good time."

Polachek insists she's been "blessed with so many things money couldn't buy."

Blessed, literally. Bette brought some clergy over from her weekly prayer group on opening day to bless the place in 2006. It's been open every day since. They've even held classes there, on everything from snowshoeing to genealogy.

Polachek says her average customer is 60 or older and skews toward blue-collar. "Highland Park has hundreds of coffee shops, this neighborhood had none," she says.

To wit: The Swede Hollow Café is more than 2 miles south. She learned right away her customers didn't want biscotti -- "hard biscuits?" -- and preferred ice cream. The piano came in a year ago.

Johnson High School, the heart of the East Side, is a few blocks to the east.

"That's where my Grandpa Rudy graduated in 1902, my parents in 1943, me in 1972, my wife in '74 and my son in 2010," says Bob Schmidt, a regular who often plays his trumpet at Polly's sing-a-longs. "And we have an exchange student from Latvia who just went to his first homecoming."

Polachek says her clientele is family. Again, literally. Bette's sisters Kathleen and Mary Ellen, nicknamed Soupie and Mickey, are regulars. Soupie says she stops by to "shorten her days" of grief since her husband, Tom, died a year and a half ago. He loved Polly's.

Mickey is busy orchestrating a "dirt painting" class, with customers mixing water with various kinds of dirt.

Then there's Uncle Emil, who ran a greenhouse and gave Bette a "humongous" coleus plant when she moved to her East Side house 36 years ago.

"I saved pieces of it and everybody around here has some of Uncle Emil in their yard."

That, of course, includes Ann Polachek, who shows off a little pot with Uncle Emil's legacy, cradling the plant as a smile grows on her face and the piano starts playing the old Carpenters' song "We've Only Just Begun."

CURT BROWN

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