Like many good love stories, David and Mara Bernick keep some secrets about theirs.
“There are things that we just want to keep to ourselves,” says Mara, although both she and David admit that one of the most puzzling secrets is a secret to the two of them—for about a year, they didn’t know they were falling in love.
It started in 1998, when David opened the Riverview Coffee Shop, one of those places where not only can your kid happily play or fuss or say “Uh-Oh” over and over without irritating any of the other patrons, but you can actually sit and have a really good cup of coffee. Quickly, the coffee shop became particularly popular with parents of young children.
Mara was not a parent, but she was a nanny. And almost every day, like others with small children to care for, Mara found herself at the coffee shop, often talking to David. “We talked about everything,” says David. “What’s in the news, spiral staircases, quirky stuff. It was like our first date, and it lasted for a year.”
Mara agrees. “I never looked at David and said, ‘He’s kind of cute,’” she says.
“I assumed you were married,” says David.
“And I assumed you had a girlfriend,” Mara adds. Which was true. The two of them are quick to point out that they were, in fact, seeing others—Mara was happy in her relationship (“I wasn’t looking”) and David was engaged.
Though their mutual attraction was a secret to them, it was no secret to their friends. “A friend would say ‘What do you think about David?’ ” says Mara.
“Or they’d say,” continues David, “ ‘Don’t you think Mara’s really nice?’ ”
“David likes camping,” continues Mara, talking about comments from friends. “David likes wine.”
“Mara likes to breath air,” says David, and the two of them laugh.
“Everyone assumed we were together,” says Mara.
“There was a chemistry there,” adds David, “and we didn’t see it.”
And then one of David’s friends came in and asked David about his wedding plans. Mara was standing at the counter of the coffee shop. “I was stunned that we had been talking all this time and I didn’t know that about him,” she says.
After offering David her congratulations, she asked him, “Are you happy?” And she started wondering, “Why do I care whether he’s happy? I was happy in my relationship.” Then, she realized, she wanted David to be happy in his. “From then on,” says David, “we started questioning our relationships.”
Later that week, at the counter of the coffee shop, Mara asked, “Should we try to have a conversation about this somewhere?” So the two of them—who had never seen each other outside the coffee shop—agreed to meet.
“Let’s just talk,” David recalls saying to Mara. “We didn’t want to hurt the people we were seeing.”
Mara got cold feet and called David to back out, but David said, “Stop by after I close.” So their first date started at 10 o’clock that night, at the Poodle Club. But they worried that somebody might see them “and get the wrong idea,” David says, so they drove over to St. Paul looking for a place to talk, before finally settling down at Jimmy’s in northeast Minneapolis. The conversation continued back at the now closed coffee shop and “we were engaged within the week,” Mara says.
Escape to Spain
But how to marry? “We come from different religious backgrounds,” David says, “and our families had never met. Having a normal wedding was out of the question.”
So they eloped. “We went to Spain and married in Gibraltar,” David recalls. “We were traveling around like best friends.”
“Scared best friends,” adds Mara. “We’d never been abroad before.”
Originally, they thought of marrying in Spain but “there was a language barrier,” David says, adding that Spain also requires two months residency. So they chose Gibraltar, where their biggest problem was finding witnesses. “We kept thinking we’d meet some Americans,” David says, but when they didn’t they happily made do with a 6-foot-10-inch Moroccan security guard serving as David’s best man, and a 5-foot-4-inch Jewish photographer serving as Mara’s maid of honor.
“You should see our wedding photos!” they both laugh.
That night they went out to eat, “But [the restaurant] was like something from the Mafia,” David says. The two of them planned to just have a quick drink before leaving for a less sinister spot when word apparently got around that they were newlyweds and someone came up to them and said, “My uncle would like to buy you a drink.”
“We didn’t know if we could refuse,” Mara says. “Then the uncle said, ‘I’ve been married for 55 years and it was the best thing that ever happened to me’ and other people came up and told us their stories . . . ‘I got married 26 years ago today.’ It was the most embracing place,” David says.
Back home in South Minneapolis, the two of them hosted a wedding reception for about 100 people at the coffee shop. Their families had never met, but “it was a good time,” David says. “People talked and laughed and everyone had fun.”
Later, their son, Auguste, was born and they bought a house just up the street from the coffee shop. Mara’s mother opened an antique store next door. “It’s important to me to have family around,” David says, while Mara adds that the two of them have employed sisters and nieces at the coffee shop and, now, the Riverview Wine Bar, which they just opened this past February.
“We opened it to help the neighborhood,” David says, explaining that he had conducted an informal poll about what to put in the adjoining space (he owns the building). “People asked for it, and the neighborhood’s always been really good to us. It’s another reason to come to the corner.”
“It’s a good corner,” Mara adds, noting the proximity of the Riverview Theater. “It’s an easy 30-buck date,” David continues, “a movie, music, food, wine.”
A place to fall in love.