In a suite above Flex Fitness in Pocahontas, Iowa, population 1,700 and dropping, Carmella Schultes paces the creaky wood floor as her guests arrive. The Upstairs Coffee Shop, which Schultes opened in 2016, may be on the second floor, but like a Prohibition-era watering hole, it is, figuratively speaking, underground. But Schultes’s patrons aren’t hiding their taste for fair-trade espresso; it’s liberal politics that they, in this deep-red town, are keeping closeted.
“I felt so frustrated and lonely after the election,” recalls Schultes, 63, who runs the Pocahontas Chamber of Commerce from the room next door. “I had to do something.” She knew there were some like-minded folks in town—25 percent of voters in Pocahontas County cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton, after all—but the local social scene was not welcoming to those who needed to vent about the nation’s new far-right government.
Schultes, who has steel-gray locks and an upbeat manner, had no interest in starting an ordinary coffee business. What she had in mind was more like a club, or a co-op. This worried her daughters, three of the four of whom are lawyers. “They said, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’” Schultes recalls. “I said, ‘Look, nobody is going to know about it. We’re going to have a private Facebook page. People will buy memberships and there will be benefits with those memberships, one of which is coffee.’”
Carmella Schultes in the Upstairs Coffee Shop in Pocahontas, Iowa
Sans approval from the board of health or a business license, the Upstairs Coffee Shop became an oasis for those in Pocahontas who’d sooner slice off a toe than don a MAGA hat. There are currently 61 members.
“I didn’t bill it as a liberal thing, but naturally the first people I invited were my political soulmates,” says Schultes, shrugging. Members are welcome to invite whomever they please, and no one is excluded, at least not overtly. “Sometimes non-liberals join, but they tend to pick up the vibe pretty quickly and drop out.”
On a Wednesday morning in May, Schultes was preparing the space for a meet-and-greet with J.D. Scholten, a former minor league pitcher from Sioux City who is running a longshot campaign to unseat Steve King, the eight-term congressman known for anti-immigrant tweets and adoration of authoritarian leaders. Scholten, 38, had been crisscrossing the countryside in a used Winnebago that serves as his campaign bus—“Twenty-four counties in ten days!” he proudly announces as he comes in the door—and had spent the previous night in a Walmart parking lot, sleeping in a bunk above the cab. He looked grateful to receive a cup of coffee that didn’t come in gas station Styrofoam.
“Are there any Dems in Pocahontas that aren’t here?” he quips, warming up the crowd. A toddler wanders in front of Scholten and dunks an oatmeal cookie in his coffee, eliciting further howls, while the doorbell downstairs keeps ringing with other members seeking a glimpse of a candidate seen as the best hope in years to depose King.
“I’ve outraised him two-to-one,” Scholten says to grunts of approval. His dogged work ethic, and perhaps Iowans fatigued of seeing negative headlines about King’s tweets, has brought him to within 6 points of the incumbent in the polls. Given that King has beaten most of his opponents by more than 20 points, this already feels like a win.
Members of the Upstairs Coffee Shop talk politics.
The suite above Flex Fitness is the second incarnation in the coffee shop’s short history. The original space, in a nearby building that once housed Schultes’s photography studio, sat at the end of a long, narrow hallway reached by an equally long and narrow stairwell. It was a quiet space, with views of cornfields and grain elevators in the distance. Schultes considered it her sanctuary, a place where she could forget that she lived in a town where she felt the need to censor her opinions on a daily basis to avoid awkward, if not hostile, conversations. But she spent most of her time there alone.
The transformation began when an acquaintance from Manhattan dropped by. “She’d moved here to reinvent herself,” Schultes recalls (it wasn’t going well). The pair bonded over flannel drip coffee and their shared political misery. Schultes urged her new friend to come by more often. “I said to her, ‘You know my car—if the Beanie Baby on the dash is upside down, that means I’m free.’ She said, ‘Ooh, like a speakeasy.’”
Soon, the Facebook group coalesced, espresso equipment was purchased, and the owner of Flex Fitness offered to house the operation, rent-free. Members of Upstairs Coffee buy cards for $15, worth ten coffee drinks, and punch them, honor-system style, with each cup they pour. Schultes trains newbies on the espresso machine and acts as house mom, sweeping the floor when needed and replenishing the beans. Upstairs Coffee is open whenever Schultes is in her office—she posts “open” on the Facebook page each day when she arrives, and closes shop with another post when she heads home.
The bonds among members have grown fast, and deep. A sizable contingent made the drive to the 2017 Women’s March in Des Moines together. And members often organize evening social events, from phone banking for local candidates to acoustic jam sessions and wine-tasting nights. “Pocahontas is a Bud Light kind of place,” says Schultes. “This is an alternative for young people who want to get together without feeling like they have to go to a bar and get smashed.”
When a member is in need, the coffee shop community rallies to offer support, Schultes says, telling me a heartbreaking story. “One day, a local pastor, a single woman in her sixties, came up the stairs and said, ‘Can I be a Democrat up here?’” Soon after, her congregation kicked her out—she had become too public with her liberal leanings. “They literally threw her out in the dark of night.” The pastor’s new friends at Upstairs Coffee took up a collection to pay her hotel bill and helped her move into a new home.
POCAHONTAS IS A SLEEPY PLACE, so when a giant Winnebago rolls into town and 40 people file into Flex Fitness on a weekday morning, heads turn. But by the time J.D. Scholten showed up, locals had long since connected the dots about the strange comings and goings at the gym. Non-members have their own name for club: the Elite Coffee Shop.
At the meet-and-greet, a photo of Abraham Lincoln stares down from the fireplace mantle onto an antique coffee table piled with recent issues of The New Yorker and yellowing stacks of the Resistance, an anti-establishment newspaper from the 1970s. Several regulars—work-from-home types, including a realtor and a young mother pursuing an online degree in music therapy—mill around, chatting excitedly about Scholten’s prospects. “We have to go after the Hispanic vote,” says a bespectacled man in a fedora, to no one in particular. “Why should they have to live in fear?”
I sidle up to an aging farmer who introduces himself as Leroy. He normally shoots the bull over coffee each morning with a bunch of farmers at the tire store down the road, and had just learned of Upstairs Coffee for the first time. Leroy seemed almost hurt that no one had invited him to join before. At the tire store, when politics come up, “It’s like a beehive,” he tells me. “I know I’m going to get stung.”
Scholten launches into his stump speech, which draws on his grandma Fern, high school baseball, and “looking people in the eye when you talk about the issues.” The lanky first-time candidate, who most recently worked as a paralegal, stumbles over his words a bit, but his lack of polish is nothing but endearing to this crowd. Toward the end, he starts to find the politician’s cadence, speaking in rousing tones as if he were addressing an arena of cheering supporters: “Tell me this race is unwinnable, tell me Steve King is unbeatable—that only adds fuel to my fire. I feel a buzz in this district, across Iowa, and across the nation. Something special is happening.”
The audience—all 40 of them—is rapt.