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Emily Germain Shea

Year of Graduation: 
1983
Shea holding a coffee mug close to her face.

“I enjoy feeding and talking to people. To have a place where people care is pretty special.”

Emily Germain Shea ’83 didn’t fully realize the impact her business, the Kickstand Cafe, had on the town of Arlington, Massachusetts, until one day in June 2015.

Shea and her co-owner, Mark Ostow, were moved to respond to the mass shooting at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. They decided to donate 100 percent of that day’s sales to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We hardly publicized it and the day was off-the-charts busy,” Shea remembers. “We raised $9,000. That’s when I realized how powerful community is.”

Community has been at the heart of Shea’s efforts with Kickstand ever since.

Kickstand, named for its location on Massachusetts’ Minuteman Bikeway, is the place to meet in this Boston suburb. It’s a pit stop for cyclists and a gathering place for locals, for moms with small children, and for writers, singers and storytellers. Shea is the upbeat owner who oversees it all, a former lawyer-turned-yoga-teacher-turned-barista who claims “part of our charm is that we make things up as we go along.”

Shea’s arrival as an upper at Exeter seems similarly spontaneous. A native of Howard City, Michigan (population 1,800), Shea, who played bassoon as a child, learned about Exeter through friends on music trips. The daughter of a funeral home director (her father) and a pizza shop owner (her mother), “I had no idea what Exeter was,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It ended up being a transformative part of my development. It gave me confidence.”

After Exeter, Shea’s career path seemed set. She graduated from Middlebury College, received a law degree from Suffolk University, and became a litigator at Ropes & Gray, a law firm in Boston.

After her third child was born, she quit practicing law and began teaching yoga. In 2011, she started helping out at a friend’s coffee shop. “I loved the hustle-bustle,” she says. “A friend was stunned to see me making coffee and said, ‘That’s the happiest I’ve ever seen you.’ I thought this was something I might like to do full time.”

She found the perfect location: a cafe in Arlington Center. She and Ostow purchased the location and opened Kickstand in 2013. On opening day, the line of visitors stretched out the door. “The town was desperate for a great gathering spot,” Shea says.

Her first year of business was educational — and frightening. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I was learning on the fly how to get systems running smoothly.” She focused on providing good coffee and homemade food; in the process, Kickstand became a welcome space for people to gather.

The 80-seat cafe includes a large community table, and sharing space is encouraged. Special events pull in people from near and far, including open mic night the first Friday of each month, featuring musicians of all ages and abilities (folk singer and fellow Exeter alumna Cosy Sheridan ’83 has performed); quarterly readings and Q&As with members of the Arlington Authors Salon, a group of writers who originally gathered around Kickstand’s community table; and “Fugitive Stories,” a monthly live storytelling event modeled on National Public Radio’s popular “Moth Radio Hour.” And Shea and Ostow continue to donate to charitable causes.

Shea is surprised at the community that’s evolved around Kickstand; at least one patron admitted to her that his family moved to Arlington because of the cafe. “I think people crave places where they see other people,” she says. “I enjoy feeding and talking to people. To have a place where people care is pretty special.”

— Debbie Kane 

Editor's note: This profile first appeared in the winter 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.