A Place of Perfect Harmony

Story By Jeff Troiano

Oringally published in the Argus Courier Petaluma Magazine

As of this particular Saturday morning, it’s been raining without a break for nearly three days. The sky over the Foundry Wharf is tinted a foreboding lavender, and it’s obvious that the Sierra is getting pounded. Pools of rainwater fill every divot in these pockmarked streets that perch above the Petaluma River. Sunshine seems a distant memory, and discussion of drought is almost comical.

As we approach Aqus Cafe, the coffeehouse shines like a jewel across the rainslick street. I say to my friend, “No one is going to be here today. The weather is too grim.” I’m completely wrong. When I pop open the cafe’s side entrance, music and conversation rush out like water from an overflowing tub. The place is packed, weather be damned.

Waitress Ani Sher delivers a order

“It feels like our own little music oasis in here,” comments Julie Kelly, a lifelong Petaluman. “The ambience is great. The windows are all fogged up. You don’t even care what’s happening outside.” A hum seems to rise from this crowd, which divides its attention equally between the band and ebullient friends across every table. Though respectful of the musicians, the audience seems to be aware of the other phenomenon that’s occurring here – a large number of friendly, creative people gathering to partake in what is commonly referred to as “community.” Jennifer Tatum, a Petaluma artist, gestures above the crowd to show me the multitude of family and friends in attendance today. “It’s so warm and welcoming here.

But almost as much as the music, it’s the strength of community here at Aqus that attracts us.” Steve Woolmer, a musician, echoes that sentiment. “It’s simply a wonderful exercise in community-building.” I quickly scan the room for a vacant table, but there is none, so we stand. I’m pleased to recognize several people in the room: A few artists; some retailers from downtown; neighbors from Second Street; river rowers; young parents with toddlers in tow; retirees; and, of course, musicians. Everybody seems to know somebody here. Dramatic greetings, warm smiles, knowing nods and polite introductions punctuate each pause between songs. Chris and Cathy Baron, who have lived in Petaluma for just a few months, learned of these Saturday morning concerts at Aqus Cafe practically upon their arrival. “We moved here from Orlando because of Petaluma’s charm,” remarks Chris Baron. “We have not been disappointed. These Saturday morning shows are a great slice of local flavor.”

Cafe Owner John Crowley chats with Nick Sutton

“Local music” can sometimes be a euphemism for “less than entertaining.” That’s not the case here. Aqus Cafe owners John Crowley and his wife, Anne-Laure, book the Saturday morning shows with high-quality acts from Sonoma County, a region rife with talent yet lacking in venues. “We try to bring in acts that might not otherwise have a place to play,” says John Crowley. “These are people who are not necessarily full-time, professional musicians, but they’re passionate about their music. And it’s always diverse. We’ve had opera, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk – the audiences seem to enjoy the variety.” In recent years, other Petaluma cafes attempted to draw crowds on Saturday mornings with the lure of live music, but results were mixed, at best.

At Aqus, “I believe that our concerts are successful because our cafe concept is working so well. It’s always been our goal to be a popular community gathering place for all sorts of activities that bring people together. Music is just the tip of the iceberg,” Crowley says. Jacob Langhoff, one of the baristas who serves the lattes and croissants to this crowd, enjoys working on Saturdays. “The energy level is high during the concerts. It’s a really live place. It might take an extra minute to get your order, so please be patient. It’s well worth the wait.”