How to differentiate yourself? It’s the question on the lips of all small-business owners—especially those in a specialty coffee landscape as densely packed as that of today’s New York City. But for Little Skips owner Linda Thach, the answer to that question always came easily: just be who you are, especially if who you are is full of positive energy.
When last we checked in with Little Skips in 2014, Thach had made a name for her coffee spot with a good-vibes community atmosphere nonpareil, in what seemed then (or when it opened in 2010) to be an unseemly, askew-angled intersection underneath Bushwick’s noisy J/M/Z trains. Today, Skips is a three-shop tiny empire, a family of charming cafes all a bit different—Little Skips, Baby Skips, and 2017’s Little Skips East—each of which effuses the authentic charm and positive energy of the first Skips. And though every new shop is sleeker than the last, they all feel like you’ve stepped into someplace like home, someplace different than everywhere else to get coffee in New York City. And yes, they’re all still camped out under the elevated train tracks.
“When I opened [the first] Skips, I loved the Brooklynness of the space,” says Thach over a sunny morning chat in her newest location, Little Skips East at Broadway and Covert Street. Inside Little Skips East, few traces of her flagship cafe’s boho charm remain, instead making way for new touches such as bright white walls and tile and a lively mural. Accent walls are painted in a vivid aqua Thach tells me is called Poolside Blue, a color that echoes, at least that day, the highlights in Thach’s own hair. Bright orange mini Le Creuset pots dot the tables, part of the owner’s affection for vintage. They form a straight line from her fondness for things old, and loved, to her awakening to more sunny, vivid spaces.
At Little Skips’ original location, Thach says she was enthralled with keeping its original elements—a wood floor patina’d with years of motor oil, brick walls, and the signage from the carburetor shop it once was. “Back in the day when you came to Brooklyn, you’d think of places like that,” says Thach. “Now the shift is happening and you expect places to look like this and Baby Skips, and I enjoy brighter spaces now.”
The brighter spaces—still full of their own unique character—that make up today’s Little Skips family also includes Baby Skips, a pocket cafe adjoining Banh Mi fusion restaurant Little Mo, both of which recently reopened after a months-long Metropolitan Transit Authority project removing part of the M train infrastructure directly overhead. During the shutdown, the MTA covered Thach’s rent, allowing her and business partners Mitch McCann and Hector Marcel to focus on opening the new Little Skips East.
At Little Skips East, you’ll find Counter Culture Coffee—as at the other Skips—prepared (obsessively, Thach might say) with skills a cut above cafes in the neighboring Bushwick and Bed-Stuy communities. You’ll also find feature roasters here, like Brooklyn locals City of Saints, and vegetarian-forward food options such as a tempeh BLT with vegan cilantro aioli or microgreen-sprinkled avocado toast. The menu realizes the coffee and love portions of the shop’s would-be mantra, COFFEE ART LOVE, painted broadly on the storefront. And the art?
Art was “the reason I moved to New York, the reason I moved to Bushwick,” says Thach, seated in front of billowing wall art by Morgan Winters, whose work festoons the walls of Baby Skips as well. Little Skips’ original store has an exterior mural that rotates throughout the year, and hosts live music and open mic nights as part of its evening entertainment. For Thach, bringing art and artists into the fold is a big part, but just one part, of the essential community-building she works toward at each of her cafes—something hard to do in the crosshairs of rapid gentrification.
“The neighborhood wasn’t gentrified when I opened Little Skips and we had a more diverse clientele then,” Thach admits. “I was able to go down the block and offer our neighbors coffee and invite them in. But that’s something we strive to do still. We look for opportunities to work with people in the community. There’s a women’s shelter down the street that we take food to every night,” Thach says, though she is aware that much has changed in the eight years since Skips was a newcomer.
“I’ve been battling this since I opened and had so much criticism and this and that, and I say look, I didn’t come to gentrify anything, I came to open a business and this was the only place that I could afford,” she says. “Perhaps the neighborhood received me better because I’m Asian. I watched people’s kids, I was invited to BBQs on the block. I really seek out events like that to make sure we’re doing our part and not just existing here and not realizing where we’re at. It’s the responsibility of a business owner to make sure that you’re aware of your presence and your surroundings.”
For now, the surroundings of Little Skips East still don’t feel that gentrified. There are still plenty of 99-cent stores, discount clothiers, and nail salons under these shadowy tracks. But as the shop moves forward—Thach and her partners were just approved for a beer and wine license in early January—its founder emphasizes her hope that it’ll grow in tandem with the neighborhood, not just as a capsule within it.
“We have to allow for integration, no matter who it is,” she says. “If you’re only surrounded by the same type of people, your field of view is just so narrow that you can’t understand someone else. If you have neighbors who are diverse and are different, I feel like everyone should be open to it. If you’re in someone’s neighborhood, everyone needs to be open.”
And will her neighborhood always be this secret playground stretching under the J/M/Z tracks?
“I’m never leaving this train,” Thach says, laughing. “The J/M/Z is just my whole life.”