In October, the group opened the Ace of Cups coffee shop and bookstore — the first new business to launch in Cairo in four years. The windows are adorned with posters, and on the door is a carefully scripted sign in black Sharpie that reads "We Are Not For-Profit." Inside, the brightly painted walls are lined with stacks of used books. Johnston had invited friends to come and work at the coffee shop in exchange for free rent but got few takers. "A lot of people shook on it and then backed out," he explains. "A friend of mine basically told me, 'I want to live in a place that already has nice things,' as opposed to this plan of building nice things, which is what we're doing."
Business is slow. Rapattoni and Johnston open the store each morning at 10 and stand around at the counter, waiting for customers. Cars lazily circle the block, their passengers peering in the windows, trying to understand the purpose of the incongruously cheery purple storefront. "What are they doing?" wonders Judson Childs, Cairo's mayor. "I drive by, and it doesn't seem to be a thriving business."
The residents of Cairo are nonplussed by the newcomers, whose presence they view as voyeuristic — and temporary. Johnston and his friends aren't the first to come into town with grand dreams of urban revitalization. "People in Cairo are used to people coming to help and then leaving," says Donna Raynalds, director of SIDEZ, a southern Illinois economic-development nonprofit.