At Tower Bakers in Glendowie regulars have been coming for 18 years.
There’s no view to speak of. There’s no sun. Two small tables outside face a carpark that services a nondescript block of suburban shops. But the regulars aren’t looking for glamour or the latest designer makeover. They can go down the hill to the seaside village of St Heliers for that.
Instead they crowd into this tiny local café, a place where proprietor and baker Tony Swanson knows everyone’s name, and how they have their coffee.
Inside the café, customers don’t have to decide which table to sit at. There is just the one – plain, rectangular and with seats for about six.
At busy times, customers crowd around the table, chatting and reading the Herald. Swanson makes coffee, serves up the fresh food he has made early in the morning, and talks. He tells them a little about himself, they do the same. Pretty soon his customers are talking to each other.
They range from tradesmen and elderly locals to young mothers and the well-heeled (Australasia’s richest man, Graeme Hart, swings by for a coffee while on his morning jog.)
Like so many other local cafes, Tower Bakers has replaced the street corner, village square, or back fence as the community’s meeting place. People once knew their neighbours’ business but now they’re more likely to know more about their local barista than the person next door. Status evaporates here, for the café is safe neutral territory.
Tony Swanson is held in high regard by his customers and he has the certificate to prove it. Up on the wall, among the postcards and photographs, is a Good Citizen Award, given to Swanson by the city council for contribution to the community.
An artisan bread-maker, he gets up at 3.30am five days a week, and drives from his home in Onehunga to the café to start the baking. In his small bakery behind the café he makes everything from Eccles cakes and Cornish pasties to croissants and braided Jewish bread.
Swanson has watched his customers’ kids grow up. They made their first visits as toddlers wanting one of his famous pink-iced shortbread biscuits – made in honour of Piglet the Great, a pet pig which lived for years at nearby Karaka Bay and befriended local youngsters.
But it’s not just the food and coffee customers queue for. “I’ve had customers coming in at 5am because they want someone to talk to.”
Linda Schofield has lived in the area for 40years and has been coming to Tower Bakers since it opened.
“I arrive around 6.30 in the morning. It’s my first coffee. I’ll pop in throughout the day. It’s so special. It’s an eclectic mix. I describe Tony as my guardian angel. Everyone is treated the same.”
“There’s a sense of place here,” says Schofield. “People socialise with each other and have dinner. There was one couple who come here, who had a terrible car accident and everyone rallied around to support them.”
Come the weekend, the “Saturday Club” crowds into the café from early morning. Its members include a knight, a plumber, builders and lawyers. They’ve become friends, socialise together and, this year, a group arranged a rendezvous in Paris.
Says Swanson: “They talk about serious stuff and ordinary stuff. It’s not gossip. There’s a generosity of spirit, which is different.”
Text by Sarah Daniell
Photographs by Brett Phibbs
Published in the Herald Magazine Spring 2012