Over the last 24 years, commuters at the Central Street Metra station have relied on the station’s cafe for coffee, pastries and—perhaps more importantly—a friendly smile, local gossip and a warm sendoff from the owners, Mary Lou and Bill Smith.
On Friday, the last official day of business for Top of the Tracks, family and friends packed the small space as Mary Lou served the last trickle of customers. She bustled from the back kitchen to the front register, refilling the coffee machine, packing more water bottles into the cooler and setting out eggs in the dish on the counter, stopping only to greet each person who entered.
“She’s wonderful,” says Saul Wexler, an attorney who’s been coming to Top of the Tracks since it opened. “She makes you feel at home whether it’s your first time here or your 100th time here.”
Mary Lou’s sister, Betsy Jagiello, tells a story to illustrate the point. Her daughter was interviewing someone for a job, and found out he was from Evanston. So she mentioned that her Aunt Mary Lou owned a coffee shop there. Turns out, the man she was interviewing stopped at Top of the Tracks every morning on his way downtown. He had just moved to Evanston, and he “didn’t know a soul,” Jagiello recalls.
Every morning when he went in, Mary Lou would say “Good morning,” and ask him how he was doing, the man told Jagiello’s daughter. Before he left, she’d say, “Have a good day!”
“He didn’t have anybody to tell him that,” says Jagiello. “It’s going to take her a while to realize how many people she’s touched.”
Bill, a former sergeant with the Evanston Police Department, bought the coffee shop in 1987, one year before he retired. He opened it in May 1988—and “she more or less took it over,” he says of his wife.
Mary Lou, who also stages houses, decorated the coffee shop with photographs of trains, a train clock, pictures of the couple’s four kids and hand-lettered signs in magic marker.
Bill has always worked the first shift, coming in around 3:30 a.m. to get everything set up, then handing the operations off to Mary Lou later in the morning.
“We found out that two of us behind the counter leads to trouble,” he jokes.
Early in the morning, people may be quiet since they’re half asleep, but they’re always nice, Bill says. As Mary Lou, takes over, conversation begins to heat up.
Regulars describe Mary Lou as a fountain of information who knows about restaurants opening and closing in town, who’s living, dying or sick. She knows her customers’ birthdays, the names of their kids, and always asks about their lives.
Customers say Top of the Tracks is a place where connections are made—not just between Mary Lou and the customers, but also between customers themselves.
“All the people end up being friends,” says Mary Lou.
Wexler, the attorney who’s been coming since Top of the Tracks opened, says he met his law partner here. Mary Lou knows of at least two couples who met at her café and later got married. She’s met governors at Top of the Tracks and talked to countless politicians who’ve made station stops “ad nauseum,” she says.
But, Mary Lou says, “You get to know them. It’s kind of nice.”
Once, someone had a heart attack, years before the station was equipped with elevators. As firefighters tried to bring a stretcher down the stairs, Mary Lou recalls how people were rushing up the steps, still trying to make their train.
Another time, she sold a young man a Valentine. He signed it and asked her to give it to another regular, a girl who came in at a different time. Mary Lou did, and “she opened it up, she looked at me and I never saw her again,” she recalls.
There are so many stories, Mary Lou is hoping to collect them all in a book. She’s gathering photos of customers and tales of their experiences in the café at her blog, topofthetracks.blogspot.com. Customers can also e-mail Mary Lou at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although she and Bill will no longer helm the small cafe attached to the Metra station, Mary Lou says the new owners are three women from Evanston. One of their husbands even takes the train in the morning.
“So the connections will still be there,” she says.