By Patrick Yost
In a quiet room, over a cup of coffee, Jolene Bush remembers the week that brought sudden upheaval to her life – the week that forged her determination and settled her into becoming a successful downtown business owner.
That week, Bush managed to negotiate out of partnership agreements with what is now Perk Avenue, on the heels of reconstruction surgery after enduring and surviving breast cancer.
That was on a Tuesday. On Thursday she walked into the city of Madison and filed a business application to change the name to Perk Avenue, did the same thing with her banks and notified suppliers.
On Friday of that week, her marriage ended.
On Sunday, her beloved mother, Ovaline Hensler, died.
Then, she says, she was walking through a mist of doubt, grief and fear. Now, 16 years later, she has a survivor’s philosophic memory.
“That was a week of cataclysmic change for me,” she says.
“I figured after that week, I could weather anything.”
Bush, a charming 59-year-old diminutive woman with an infectious smile and interior grit, did weather the change. She immediately began placing her stamp on the business that had, in 2004 as Barista’s, served the first meal to her father Joe and mother during their anniversary. In short time, the coffee shop located at the corner of Main Street and West Jefferson Street became “Madison’s living room.”
But after 20 years in the business, after learning the ropes of small business and building an iconic Madison business, Bush says she is calling it a day. “I’m 60 years old,” she says. “I’m ready to find another chapter.” Since closing after a Madison edict restricting restaurants to take-out only, Perk Avenue will open no more. Bush said she has sold both the real estate to an individual who is going to re-open the business in the future.
Bush, the 1978 valedictorian of the former Rutledge Academy, worked in Athens as an insurance agent until the birth of her son on Aug.17, 1988. As her children grew, she began to remember the joy she had working with customers and the public. The former Mack’s Department Store had been purchased and re-purposed by Marcus Vernon as Madison Coffee House when the business came onto Bush’s radar.
Faye Craft and Babs Johnston approached her when an opportunity to buy the building and business came available. “They both wanted a coffee shop, badly,” she laughs. “And the build-out was beautiful.”
And Bush found that her previous skills and natural personality would serve her well in the new business. “That was a perk. I loved talking to everybody. I loved being a listener. That’s what a good coffee house should do.”
Bush consigned her own Perk brand of roasted coffee out of a roaster in Fayetteville. She began hosting live entertainment in the historic location and watched as the community found its second home. Perk Avenue famously hosted writer’s groups, church groups and ladies clubs. On any given day, the comforting space hosted traveling families who made it an annual pilgrimage during travels through Madison to long tables of men discussing local politics and weather.
After Bush’s mother died, her father Joe became a resident of the Madison House, an assisted living home two blocks west of Perk Avenue. Daily, she says, Joe would come into the restaurant and hold court. “I became his primary caregiver and I was right here,” she says. “It was beautiful.”
Joe added an ingredient to an already seasoned business. “The last three years of his life he was in a wheelchair and would roll around and talk to people,” she says. After Joe’s death, “people still came in and asked about him.
“It was a season,” she says, “that was supposed to be.”
The day she made the announcement, Bush sat in the quiet space of a closed Perk Avenue. The normal low murmur of conversation, clinking utensils and soft footsteps on the hard wood floors was vacant. Gone were employees, gone were customers. The silence, she says, is painful. “I can’t tell you how it hurts me to see this place empty.
“It became my identity for 16 years.”
She revels in that and is thankful. “I have to say God has looked after me so well, he really has.”
She has closed this chapter and is ready for the next. “I decided this can’t be all there is to me. I’ve got to find myself again. I’m going to take a break for a while and pray, do some introspection.”
She will do so from a different perspective from the one she had that “cataclysmic” week of opening, of giving birth to a beloved Madison business. “I have to say I am glad of who I am now. I’ve had so many new and extraordinary experiences.”
“I have friends now that I would have never had.”