Coffee klatch brings daily laugh to Fulton coffeehouse

Jim Conway, Helen Conway, Manny Gabler, Kris Lindholm and Mark Holland (l to r).

Anyone who stops at the Fulton Dunn Bros on a weekday morning will find a group of regular customers — so regular, they’ve been coming nearly every day for 15-20 years. At least that’s the estimate.

“Since eternity began,” said Jim Conway.

Most of them met at the coffeehouse one by one as strangers, gradually forming a loyal group that has laughed together, grieved together, and discussed every topic imaginable, from politics and religion to movies and travel.

“We solve all the problems of the world,” said Mark Holland. “…I used to be a mailman and came here for a break. [Conway] invited me to join him.”

“What the hell, why should we sit at separate tables,” said Conway.

Kris Lindholm joked that she spent quite a few mornings reading a newspaper before Jim invited her to join the group.

“He thought I was a Republican,” she said.

Some regular customers float in and out of the conversation. One of them is Dr. Fred Walker, an avid reader who always brings a book to the coffeehouse.

“You do everything you possibly can to keep me from finishing this book,” he recently told the group.

“The other day, he read the best chapter of a book he ever read,” Lindholm said. (That would be Chapter 38 of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.”)

“Reading is No. 1 in my life. This group is way down to No. 2,” Walker said.

The retired residents live nearby and range in age from 58 to 90.

“It doesn’t take much to get an invite,” said Lindholm.

At the prospect of a newspaper article, the group joked they’ll be flooded with new applicants.

“We have a high entry fee,” Holland said.

“We cover a lot of subjects every day too,” Jim said.

“You never hear crickets,” Holland said.

“We always get into politics,” said Helen Conway, Jim’s sister-in-law.

“We’re still discussing Tuesday night’s debate,” Lindholm said.

The group occasionally meets around town for doughnuts or dinner, but it’s rare they take a cup of coffee elsewhere.

“They roast their beans here,” Holland said. “It’s better than Starbucks.”

Nate Larson, manager of Dunn Bros at 50th & Xerxes, attended Holland’s retirement party and helped Jim move out of his apartment.

“They’re the best,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know all of them. … These guys have lived amazing lives.”

Jim is a World War II veteran who’s traveled extensively for work with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and is a frequent poker player. (“He doesn’t always come back with his shirt on,” Lindholm joked.) Holland worked as a mail carrier, and he appears in the Southwest High School Hall of Fame for cross-country. Manny Gabler spent nine years of his childhood living in Shanghai, where his family sought refuge from Nazi Germany among 18,000 undocumented Jews admitted to Shanghai. Lindholm worked as an antiques dealer and in Human Resources for Honeywell, and she reads two books per week. Nancy Conway, Jim’s sister, worked as a chambermaid in England in the ‘70s (she said the job wasn’t very glamorous, though the music scene was) and as a nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center’s float pool. Ron Moore is a retired mailman, and the Tennessee native serves as the group’s southern connection. Deb Moore recently retired from teaching math and science in Minneapolis. Mike Hartigan worked in the Minneapolis court system, and he brings extensive knowledge of city government as well as “a lot of Irish humor.” Helen turns 90 in March, and she worked as a teacher at schools including Ramsey Jr. High and Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

“She’s a 40-year-old party person trapped in a 90-year-old’s body,” said Gabler.

“They call me the lunch queen. I love getting out,” Helen said. “…A younger group keeps you younger. It’s a lot of fun.”

Staff at Dunn Bros clean Jim’s coffee mug and keep it in the back, a habit they started when he forgot his mug at the shop. Jim’s mug isn’t the only one in back.

“There is a whole tray back there of other people’s mugs,” Larson said.

Before school, anywhere from 12-30 kids gather before heading to class at Lake Harriet and Carondelet. And another large group comes in to Dunn Bros on Saturdays.

“People all seem to know each other in here,” Larson said.

The group has lost members over the years to cancer and ALS: Pam Conway, Elaine Mitchell and Linda Hoffman. Jim lost three daughters. Holland’s wife died last year. Helen lost her husband to Alzheimer’s in 2011.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Lindholm said.

“We’re each other’s support group,” Holland said.

“Half of us live alone. People will come by your house if they don’t see you for a few days,” Lindholm said.

Jim, who recently turned 90, said you pick up and keep moving on.

“Don’t stop,” he said. “…I’m a relic. I’m able to walk and talk though.”

The end of a coffee hour isn’t necessarily the end of a day’s gathering. On a recent weekday, they planned to regroup for happy hour at Pinstripes — they said they’d have an entirely different story to tell around 4:30 that day.

“It is kind of amazing how we managed to hit it off,” Holland said.