Her cup is more than half full

On any weekday morning, you’ll find Wanda Bergstrom at Montrose’s City Hall Coffee Shop, where she’s waited on customers for 41 years.

It’s 5:30 a.m., and her regulars won’t arrive for another 15 minutes, so she has time to dish a few stories. She starts the three pots of coffee she keeps flowing at all times and brings up the mugs that customers keep on the wall.

“I had this big huge guy that would come in every morning and gripe to me that these mugs were too small for his big hand,” she says of the shop’s white mugs. “He said, ‘You need mugs.’ I said, ‘OK, bring a mug in.’ I had my brother-in-law make this rack. People said, ‘If he gets a mug, I want a mug,’” which explains the colorful rear corner collection.

Bergstrom’s first customers to arrive this morning are also her dear friends — a carpenter named George Wright, an accountant named David Small, a retired couple, Jeff and Donna (whose last names remain a perpetual mystery to all — even to Bergstrom) and Teach, otherwise known as Ron Bake, a former Crescenta Valley High School math teacher.

They settle in, Small in his rear booth, Teach on his stool and Jeff and Donna beside Wright’s booth. Jeff and Donna begin crossword puzzles with erasable pens and the rest make headway in the day’s paper before the cooks arrive at 6 a.m. when Bergstom, without any menus or talk of how anyone wants their eggs, places everyone’s orders.

At 71, Bergstrom, a wife, mother of four, grandmother to seven and great-grandmother to two, works five hours a day. Each year, she thinks of retiring but reconsiders every time.

“I feel good, and all the customers are like my family,” she said. “I’ve known them forever. I have customers now that I waited on when they were children.”

Originally from Minnesota, this unofficial mayor of Montrose worked a beer tap when she was 10 years old atop a box her uncle fashioned in his liquor store for better reach. Her family moved to Glendale when she was 13. She graduated from Glendale High School in 1957 and married the same year.

On this Wednesday morning, any object around the restaurant reminds Bergstrom of a story. Two of her stories end with Bergstrom on the ground clutching a coffee pot, like the time her leg got caught on a planter.

She fell through the glass door and it shattered to pieces. In the second story, an earthquake hit. She darted underneath the counter, her customers jammed at the door, and not one clean mug survived.

“After it stopped shaking, I’m out there with the customers to make sure they all got outside,” she said. “Everything was all broken in here, but I still had that coffee pot. So we found cups and we had coffee.”

When Bergstrom doesn’t show up for work, her regulars know that she’s spending a long weekend with her husband in Las Vegas. Aside from travel, Bergstrom doesn’t miss work very often. The longest she’s been away was when she was recovering from surgery and radiation for breast cancer.

“She doesn’t seem any different to me now than she [did] then,” said one of her regulars, Chuck Bowman. “She’s an icon here. I drive here from Sierra Madre. If it wasn’t for the people like that — the characters, and Wanda, I wouldn’t do that. It’s about 35 miles a day.”

There are some stories that Bergstrom and her regulars can tell inside and out, finishing each other’s sentences as they do so. One of these, referred to infamously as “the reindeer heist,” starts with Bergstrom recalling how upset she was when Montrose Shopping Park first decorated the streets with holiday lights and decorations.

While reindeer displays sat directly outside several nearby shops, City Hall Coffee Shop lacked one at its entrance. After a friend appeased her with a twig reindeer, it was stolen. Bergstrom found a ransom note in its place. Meant as a harmless prank by the employees of a former bookstore, they didn’t return the reindeer from their store’s upstairs loft until this newspaper investigated.

Midway through his breakfast, Jeff looked up and asked, “Did you tell her about the day my cup got empty?” Briefly, everyone paused to hear him tell it. Then Bergstrom sighed for the fun of it and refilled his mug.

“Oh, everyone hates empty cups. Because then you have to blow the dust out of it,” she joked.

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