'So what's the choice?" I ask.

"Choice?" says Raquel. "Cheese, ham, and egg in a bagel. That's the choice."

Uh, this is the breakfast menu?

I'm standing at the counter of this cozy, booky, wired, sofa-strewn little place on Seacoast, in Imperial Beach. Hank and I ended up here a few months back at sunset one evening. We got a coffee, sat out on the back patio, and watched Ye Olde Sun descend angrily into The Pond. Back then, the place was called Hubbard's Cupboard.

This morning, I saw the new awning, IB Coffee and Books, and had to pop in. The idea was to grab a coffee, something to eat, then hive out to the back patio and watch for morning dolphins.

"We're for coffee, really," Raquel says. "Foodwise, we just want to keep it simple. But we have these blueberry muffins [$1.95], bagel and cream cheese [$1.95], chocolate chip cookies [75 cents] -- and that breakfast bagel [$3.50]."

I see they have cake, too -- cheesecake, lemon cake, and chocolate cake, all going for $3.50 a slice, and pastries like the Danish, at $1.95. But there's a couple of other guys waiting behind me now. "Okay," I say. "The breakfast bagel. And a large coffee." That's $2.00, with 50-cent refills.

I fully intend to go out back and sit with my cawfee. But first, I want to snoop around. They've got taupe rag-wiped walls, overhead fans with blades carved to look like big troppo leaves, alcoves with comfy chairs, settees, and shelves packed with books. Plus they have paintings by local artists, including a whopping print of a painting of Ye Olde Plank, the venerable pub on the next block. "I'm selling the original for $10,000," says the artist, Linda Kristine, who just happens to be in for a coffee, too.

"Breakfast bagel!" announces Raquel. I grab the blue plate with my simple egg, ham, and cheese. I'm about to head outside, when -- what the heck? -- I cave in to the comfort of the chairs and, especially, the chance of conversation.

'Cause there's plenty of that flying 'round.

"Some people paint or draw to get rid of their frustrations," this guy Todd is saying. "Me, I play full-contact football." Turns out he plays fullback for the San Diego Raiders. Yes, you heard right. They're a semi-pro circuit team that doesn't get on television because these guys just play for the love of it. So TV sports ignores them. Todd always calls in here for a coffee and a chocolate chip cookie before heading over to the gym. He's new in town. "That's why I come here," he says. "You feel like family."

Raquel is stirring a coffee, thoughtfully, with a metal spoon. "I believe in Dr. Imoto," she says. "He did experiments that showed that your thoughts actually transmit to the water, or say, the coffee that you make. If you make it with love, it physically reacts differently than if you make it with hate. I try to put love into each cup."

"That's IB," says this surfing vet-looking dude, Joe.

"IB reminds me of Hemingway's Cuba," says Jack, a lawyer from Arkansas, who's working on his laptop. "Unpretentious. I could afford to live in other towns up the coast, but this is the last of old coastal California."

"It's Mayberry," says Roberto. He's come for his daily coffee fix.

"Well, hey, not always," says Joe. "I've lived here for 30 years, since I was 14. And I tell you, back then it was dangerous to walk the streets at night. Gangs, knifings, deals, the pier was one tough area."

Joe's just fixed it with Raquel for him to come with a couple of friends to play '70s rock on a Saturday night. Their new band is called Love Glutton.

"What's important is that they're local, not if they're as good as the Stones," says Raquel. "We can hear our own. We also have a Favorite Movie night. Customers write down Casablanca or whatever, and we get the video and all watch. Families come. Kids play backgammon. We're working on a poetry night, too."

Guy named Roger comes in from cleaning the windows. Raquel hands him a note. "He does it for $5!" she says.

"I've been window-cleaning 15 years," Roger says. "And this coming fall I'm going to Europe. Spend all the money I saved."

Rosie, a pretty gal who works next door, comes in all a-flush. She tells Raquel, and then Raquel tells everybody, that she's heading for the doctor, 'cause "she thinks she's pregnant."

Guess it's one of those days. Everybody jumps up and down for a moment. Then stops when a guy comes in with a bunch of flowers. He presents them to Raquel. "Wow. We had just chatted a couple of times on MySpace.com," she says. "I'd never met him before."

The books in the back section are secondhand, and each sells for $1. I notice they have whole shelves filled with Alcoholics Anonymous books, like 12-step instruction manuals. "A lot of folks meet here casually," says Raquel. "I know about this. My father drank. My mom died in a car accident. I became an orphan, here in San Diego. I feel kinda strongly about it."

I head out for the 933 bus. God. What is it about IB? I feel like I've just come out of a really complicated family movie. I mean, let's face it, Gastronomy Central it's not, yet I feel as if I've just had one of the best meals of the year. Maybe choice is overrated.

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