With Collegetown Bagel's College Avenue location closing this week, a recent Cornell graduate takes us through what the iconic restaurant meant to her. The store will relocate to Sheldon Court, hopefully in the fall.
The thing that got me through my first year of Cornell was a bagel. While for many people, freshman year is a time to celebrate newfound freedom, I spent many of those first weeks in my dorm room scared out of my mind. I felt a bit like I had been thrown into the deep end, which I sort of literally was due to Cornell’s mandatory swimming test.
One thing in particular that took some getting used to was the dining halls. Sundays the dining hall opened at 11 a.m., and whether it was nerves or just adjusting to a new room, I always woke up early. Tired of making instant oatmeal in a microwave, I decided one Sunday morning that I would venture out to Collegetown Bagels, a store that my mom and I had gone to when we visited the campus for the first time. As I walked the mile from my dorm room to the town, I was shocked at how a campus that was so busy during the week was somehow completely empty on Sunday mornings, so much so that it almost felt like I was in one of those ghost towns in a Wild West movie. Where was everybody?
It turns out the answer was at CTB. On weekends it was always packed, filled mostly with cool upperclassmen and families who reminded me of my own. But what I loved especially was how much it felt like an escape from the stately campus buildings I spent my week in. The interior had an upstate-meets-Brooklyn kind of vibe: wooden chairs, lots of kombucha, and a super tiny bathroom. It was sometimes smoky and hazy in there, and it always smelled a bit like burnt bagels, a perfect imperfection that would linger on your jacket for hours after you left.
I decided to make my Sunday trek a tradition, and each week, I would order something different off the menu. If I wanted something sweet, it was a sesame bagel with Nutella and strawberries. The morning after I went to my first true college party, it was just a plain bagel with butter (you get the hint). But finally, I landed on what became my go-to bagel. It was called the Tex-Mex, and it was delicious. A balance of greasiness and a bit of spiciness, it was a toasted Rosemary-salt flavored bagel that was filled with eggs, cheddar cheese and topped with a homemade salsa.
As the weeks went by, bagels were ordered and bagels were eaten, and before I knew it, the school year ended. I had survived my freshman year! And slowly, as I finished semester after semester, I began to trade in my Sunday bagel tradition for new traditions, like pot-lucks with friends and adventures exploring other local restaurants.
But CTB lived on in other ways. Whenever my family came to pick me up for breaks, we would always stop at the bagel shop before hitting the road. Sophomore year, it became the place to celebrate after our evening chemistry exams ended, and all of us would squeeze in the shop and sit outside under the heat lamps, nibbling on cookies and discussing what answers we got- “You got 3,5 methyl hexene, I got 2,4 methyl octene!” Junior year, my friends and I stayed up all night on the side of the street so we could get an apartment that was close to campus…and one block away from CTB. The days of my mile pilgrimage each weekend seemed like a distant memory.
In a few days, I will virtually graduate from Cornell. On the morning after I found out that Cornell was deciding to close down and move online, after staying up late talking and reminiscing, my apartment-mates and I went to the bagel shop one last time. We were tired, confused, emotional and a little bit hungry. I ordered the Tex-Mex on plain (they ran out of the rosemary salt), and a large black coffee, and we sat in one of the corner tables by the windows overlooking the campus.
As I bit into the bagel and tasted the familiar tanginess and cheesiness of the bagel I had eaten so many times across so many years, I realized how much I had grown up from that freshman girl scared out of her mind. My order might not have changed, but I had.
It’s been hard to wrap my head around how in such a short span of time it seems that everything around me could change so much. I’m still trying to process the weird feeling of loss as I accept that those last few weeks of college won’t happen. That those rushed goodbyes to people might be the last time I see them. There is also a feeling of guilt that there are far more important things to worry about right now.
But, for a few minutes it feels good to focus on something like a great bagel. Sometimes that’s enough.