The other day, Tom Barnes, who once gave out 872 high-fives in a single hour, stood on a street corner in downtown Boston, doing his best to drum up business.
As the hordes of morning commuters made their way down Tremont from Park Street Station, striding past in their business casual, Barnes greeted them with fist-bumps, high-fives, and not-so-subtle suggestions that they would be wise to head 50 or so yards down an adjacent street and have themselves a cup of Boston Brewin Coffee.
“Best coffee in Boston!” he called, as a wave of people walked past.
“You know we have the best coffee in Boston, right?” he asked another passerby.
Marketing to the millions of American coffee drinkers is big business. Starbucks has its green-and-white cups and 25,000-plus locations worldwide. Dunkin’ Donuts has celebrity pitchmen Rob Gronkowski and David Ortiz.
And Boston Brewin has Barnes, a one-man advertising campaign.
“There’s not many people,” he explains, between greeting would-be customers on a recent morning, “that don’t know me.”
Barnes is 45, with close-cropped hair, tattoos, and an electric longboard that carries him downtown every morning from his home in Jamaica Plain. He is a man of average build and colorful language, the kind of guy who says things like, “The greatest thing about coffee is it doesn’t care about what color you are, or what religion you are — coffee brings us together.”
Since opening his small shop at 45 Bromfield St. in 2011, he has become a staple at the top of the block, where for two to three hours each weekday morning he cajoles passersby to ditch their chain coffee in favor of his shop’s organic version.
If you have walked past this area between the hours of 7 and 10 a.m., then you’re no doubt familiar; for some, he has become as much a part of the downtown terrain as panhandlers and delayed trains.
Over the years, Barnes has carried a bugle and held Free Hug Mondays, during which he once gave out 323 hugs in a single morning. Until recently, he set up a sandwich board next to him, upon which he scribbled out quirky slogans urging people to patronize his out-of-the-way shop.
These days, most passersby greet him with familiar smiles. Some ask for selfies. Barnes’s favorite movie is the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day,” and he considers himself something of a real-life Phil Connors, making a point to pick up pieces of people’s daily lives each day he occupies his corner.
“Michelle!” he says, as a business woman strolls past. “Have a great Thursday!”
“Why are you late today?” he asks another young woman, who quickly admits that she slept in.
When a middle-aged woman approaches, he says, “This lady had cancer. She’s finally clean of it.”
The customers, for their part, return the love. Some go out of their way to greet him in the mornings, and on those occasions they patronize a rival coffee shop, they seem genuinely apologetic.
At one point last Thursday morning, a guy with a fancy haircut walked past, smiling sheepishly as he carried a Dunkin’ Donuts cup.
“I’m getting a sandwich!” he assured Barnes, preemptively, pointing toward his shop.
“Get the coffee!” Barnes replied.
Still, surviving in a sea of established competitors isn’t an easy task. Since Boston Brewin opened, two other coffee shops have opened on the same block: Marliave Espresso Bar at 10 Bosworth St., and Ziggy’s Coffee Bar, which opened last year at the corner of Tremont and Bromfield.
Unlike his shop, which is a tiny 127 square feet and tucked into a hard-to-find bit of storefront on Bromfield Street, Ziggy’s is a kind of coffee palace, complete with a spacious dining area, trendy sign, and a menu stocked with things like Lobster Benedict and $6 fruit bowls.
It might not be a coincidence, then, that Barnes stations himself just upstream from Ziggy’s each morning, reaching the waves of people exiting Park Street Station before they reach other coffee purveryors, and urging them to hang a right on Bromfield and head toward Boston Brewin.
And so it went on a recent morning, as he greeted hundreds of people on their way into the office.
By 10 a.m., however, the foot traffic had slowed to a trickle, and Barnes grabbed his coffee cup from the sidewalk and began the slow walk back down the hill toward the relative loneliness of the shop, where he’d spend the next six or so hours working behind the counter.
Until the next morning, anyway, when he’d be right back on the sidewalk, peddling coffee one fist-bump at a time.