Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Joe Hynan
Twenty-five people crowded in a small pharmacy for their morning coffee. Sixteen men sat on facing the counter and the rest squeezed into four booths.
Newspapers littered the table and conversation filled the air. They all drank coffee from a personalized cup made for them upon their introduction to the club.
It started in 1948 with one regular customer.
It developed into an exclusive coffee club with 162 members and a waiting list to get in.
In 1948, Bob Arrol bought a pharmacy in the town of Arcola. Soon after, he bought a soda machine and put it in the back of the store.
According to Robert Arrol, the son of Bob Arrol the coffee club had a simple beginning.
“One of (my father’s) friends, Horace Cisk, came and got coffee so often that my father said, ‘I’m just going to put your name on a cup, so I don’t have to wash it.’”
Word got out and soon everyone wanted their name on a cup. So Bob Arrol made up a playful prerequisite: In order to have your own cup, you need to have ordered and consumed 100 cups of coffee.
What resulted was an every day “coffee club” at the local pharmacy. “By the time dad opened up at 8 am, there was a line outside the door. They came every day and for about a half an hour and they would sit and talk and catch up on news,” Robert Arrol said.
“Everyone enjoyed it; we all had a good time,” said Robert Holliday, a member of the club. He remembers his coffee cup as being “cream colored with the name ‘Bob’ on it.”
It got to the point where Arrol had to decide whether to build more racks for coffee cups or stop adding personalized cups. With 162 unique coffee cups lining the walls of his pharmacy, Bob Arrol decided the club had reached maximum capacity.
A waiting list was made, and every time a member died or moved out of town, a new one was moved in. A coffee cup on the wall of Bob Aroll’s pharmacy became a point of pride for the town’s coffee lovers.
The pharmacy became the morning hub of the town. At least 20 people filled the 13 stools and surrounding booths. They read the daily papers, discussed community news, and watched the TV set up on the counter. Sometimes bets were made between members, in which case the money would be put in the cups until the result was decided.
It was a brilliant marketing scheme, but everyone agrees Bob Arrol’s coffee club was not about the money. Five cents bought you all you could drink coffee. “
He really just loved the conversation and the atmosphere it created,” Robert said of his father.
Eventually people started paying attention, culminating in Charles Kuralt including the coffee club in his 1986 book, “On the Road with Charles Kuralt.”
But like all good things, the exclusive coffee club came to an end. In 1986, Bob Arrol retired and the pharmacy was purchased by Larry Bushu. He kept the tradition going for a few years before he, too, sold the business. After that the pharmacy disappeared and with it the coffee club.
“It must be 25-30 years now since the original coffee club ended,” said Holliday.
How many original members are still around? “Only four or five of us left now. The rest either died, moved away or went to a retirement home in Green Village,” he said.
The town’s morning meeting place has moved to the Dutch Kitchen. Coffee is for a dollar, but the atmosphere is not the same. “There’s less community than there was,” said Holliday.
They town goes on, and the community lasts, but when Bob Arrol retired, Arcola lost something special.