The counter is in a new place, back a bit from the front door, but on Friday nights, Kevin Sexton, a barista not afraid to voice his opinions, is still behind it pouring coffee at Rudies Coffeehouse in St. Paul.

The West End shop, closed by an arson fire earlier this year, is back in business, and today, it puts an exclamation point on its return by hosting an art show that was previously scheduled but then derailed by the Jan. 21 fire.

Bridget Tran, the shop's owner, sees the art show as a statement: "The fire didn't stop us," she said. "We're going to continue, and be strong."

In addition to threatening Tran's livelihood, the fire also had a personal aspect to it, having been set allegedly by a 18-year-old man with whom Tran says she once hung out. He got upset, she said, when she spurned his attempts to be "more than just friends."

In some ways, Tran, 24, is unlike the image of Rudies, which has a Myspace page citing as its heroes the late Joe Strummer of the Clash, and the late D. Boon of the Minutemen.

On Tuesday, she had the television tuned to Animal Planet, and to the shows "Big Cat Diary" and "Meerkat Manor," which she enjoys for its soap opera qualities. She leaves it to the other baristas, including Sexton -- described by co-worker Rachael Johnson as the "rock star at Rudies" -- to spin punk rock and reggae music.

What Tran does share with the music, however, is its communal spirit. She has envisioned the upcoming art show, with its accompanying live-music sets, as another bid by Rudies to make the neighborhood "feel like this is a place for them," she said this week.

The original event, set for Jan. 24, was to have come a year after she finalized an agreement to buy the shop at 1169 W. 7th St., and would've been the first art show there since she took over as owner.

"I was real excited," she said. "It was going to be big."

No forgiveness

About 1:55 a.m. Jan. 21, authorities were alerted to a fire at Rudies, and found five Corona beer bottles that had been fashioned into Molotov cocktails. Occupants of the apartments above the coffee shop and adjoining 7th Street Tattoo had to be evacuated.

A complaint filed later in Ramsey County District Court charged Phuc J.A. Vo, 18, of Brooklyn Park with two counts of first-degree arson. According to the complaint, an officer traced a gas container also left at Rudies to a Wal-Mart near Vo's residence, and then secured a video recording of him buying the 5-gallon container the day before the fire.

Vo, who makes his next court appearance later this month, told an investigator he was distraught over a breakup with Tran, but she said this week they never were a couple.

After the fire, on the online Modern Radio message board, people lamented what they thought was the passing of Rudies, and reminisced about their last time seeing Sexton there. But on July 17, the shop reopened, with Sexton still making the Thai coffee, Tran said.

For today's art show, Johnson, the barista curating the event, said she expects as many as 20 artists to "grab a patch of wall" and display their work beginning at 7 a.m.; live bands, including Urges from Elsewhere, a self-described drunkabilly outfit she manages, will play from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Tran, who was working the counter Tuesday with her Miniature Pinscher, Tido, on the floor beneath her, was asked if she ever could forgive the man who set the fire: "Probably not," she said. "He could've killed my friends upstairs. To me, that's the cutoff line."

But enough negativity, she added, smiling. "I still have a shop," Tran said. "It was a bad thing then. I feel better now."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109