Topless cafe finds friends after a fire

Once controversial, business getting help

Donald Crabtree, whose cafe in Vassalboro, Maine, was burned down earlier this month, is vowing to rebuild. For now he is serving coffee outdoors. Donald Crabtree, whose cafe in Vassalboro, Maine, was burned down earlier this month, is vowing to rebuild. For now he is serving coffee outdoors. (Fred Field/For The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 13, 2009
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VASSALBORO, Maine - Donna Goodrich drove up to the charred remains of the Grand View Coffee Shop and pressed a $10 bill into the palm of Amy Greenleaf, a University of Maine student who had worked as a topless waitress here before arson gutted the building behind her.

"I'm awfully sorry," said Goodrich, 53, a former waitress at a conventional eating establishment. "This is just terrible what happened."

Greenleaf, 20, smiled as she accepted the money, which Goodrich said her husband would augment later with a $50 check for a rebuilding drive being conducted from a small tent in the coffee shop's parking lot.

The coffee shop's owner, Donald Crabtree, is pledging to rebuild, restock, and reenergize an enterprise that created a tornado of controversy in Vassalboro; brought international attention to this small, sleepy town; and prompted Town Meeting this week to overwhelmingly approve an ordinance to regulate sexually oriented businesses.

"We ain't going nowhere," said Crabtree, who was asleep in the building and escaped with six others after the fire broke out. "We're going to put her back up, bigger and better. It's not the end of us yet."

Just how that will happen is anybody's guess. Crabtree said he has $700 to his name, no credit cards, and no plans to own one or take out a loan. Just clearing the site could cost as much as $30,000, and Crabtree had no insurance.

For now, he is relying on the generosity of former customers and strangers who have been pulling off Route 3 just north of Augusta to stuff cash into a large collection bin next to boxes of chocolate powdered doughnuts, tall containers of coffee, and piles of Danish.

"I've got to get the girls back to work," said Crabtree, who spends hours inside the cab of his truck, facing a jumble of stacked, blackened debris.

Earlier this week, Crabtree began offering coffee and doughnuts from a slightly damaged room inside the building. There, out of public view, the waitresses are topless. Outside, other waitresses pass the time fully clothed, chatting with former customers, pouring coffee, and collecting donations from all over the Northeast and even parts of Canada.

"I love my job," said Star Cunningham, 23, a Grand View waitress and single mother who cares for a 3-year-old boy and a disabled mother. "The customers are awesome."

The pay, nearly all through tips, has been outstanding for economically struggling mid-Maine, Cunningham said. Each week, she recalled, the work yielded a minimum of $500 in cash.

Greenleaf said she had been saving money to spend her junior year of college in Britain. If the Grand View cannot be rebuilt, that plan will hit a roadblock.

"There's no way to find a job with this kind of atmosphere," said Greenleaf, who spends $10 a day traveling to the shop from Belfast. "You never had an upset customer."

Krista MacIntyre, 28, said she had made enough money as a waitress to buy a $5,000 station wagon, which she proudly pointed out in the parking lot.

"I'd have been crazy to walk away from this," MacIntyre said.

But plenty of townspeople in sprawling, sparsely populated Vassalboro were worried when Crabtree announced he would hire topless waitresses to serve $3 cups of coffee to 25 tables in the converted motel from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Nearly 300 women applied for eight openings, Crabtree said. The Grand View also kept three male topless waiters on staff.

Despite the community's anxiety, business was humming along after the February opening: no organized protests, no picketing, and nearly no fuss.

That changed on June 3, a few hours after Crabtree returned from a Planning Board meeting, , where he had outlined a proposal for music, dancing waitresses, an extension of his hours, and expanded parking.

At about out 1 a.m., a passing ambulance crew spotted fire at the Grand View and rushed inside to wake Crabtree, his two daughters, their boyfriends, and two 4-month-old children.

"We were lucky," Crabtree said. "That smoke eventually would have overtaken us. But why would somebody want to shut me down and go to prison for the rest of his life?"

The new Vassalboro ordinance to regulate sexually oriented businesses will not affect Crabtree's operation if he reopens. Those restrictions are aimed, instead, at adult stores, theaters, cabarets, and any outlet that displays erotic materials or activities. The ordinance sets minimum required distances from schools, playgrounds, day-care centers, and places of worship.

Goodrich, the donor, said that any misgivings she had about the business have been outweighed by her anger at the arson.

"I had mixed feelings about the place until this happened," Goodrich said. "As long as my husband didn't come here and kids couldn't see it, it was harmless."

A former customer, retired Navy veteran Dick Wyman, shook his head as he stood inside the tent and commiserated with the waitresses.

"It's just a crying shame, and it didn't hurt a soul," Wyman told a visitor. "I enjoyed it, and it wasn't that I wanted the coffee."