It’s not about the doughnuts at Billie’s Pastries. It’s not about the ice cream, soda or chips. It’s not even about the coffee.
It’s about the conversations that take place and the connections that are made at the small East St. Louis coffee shop.
“It’s a gathering place for concerned citizens and local politicians,” said customer Jerome Harris. “What keeps you coming back, really, are the discussions on what’s happening in the local community.”
Jerome, 79, is a retired U.S. Postal Service superintendent of mail. He moved from East St. Louis to Fairview Heights, but he still frequents Billie’s.
Billie Jean Miller opened the coffee shop 36 years ago. Her daughter, Gina Jackson, serves as manager.
“I still come in every day,” said Billie Jean, 80, of Centreville. “But I come in when I’m ready. I may not come in until 10 o’clock. But once I’m here, I usually stay till closing.”
On a recent morning, the coffee shop was bustling with customers, who Billie refers to as “philosophers.” Four men were playing chess at two tables.
One game matched retired U.S. Department of Human Services employee Richard Bolden against retired construction laborer Donisha Olden.
“We come here to play chess and socialize, and sometimes I listen to them talk about politics,” said Richard, 66, of Fairview Heights. “We are kind of rivals. Sometimes he beats me, and sometimes I beat him. And we don’t like to lose.”
Comedy club host Melvon Acoff was playing James Tyus, who owns a business development company in Collinsville.
Melvon is one of many adult customers who started coming to Billie Jean’s as children. They stopped by for snacks or a safe haven before or after class at a nearby school.
“It’s more like a family here,” said Melvon, 39, of East St. Louis. “Everybody in here cares about me. They’ve got my best interest at heart.”
Billie Jean is an East St. Louis native who has worked as a nurse’s aide, caseworker and teacher’s aide and served as Centreville city clerk and treasurer. She’s been a Republican precinct committeeman for 40 years.
Billie Jean opened the coffee shop in 1980 after buying the vacant frame building with a brick front on State Street.
“I decided, ‘I’m not working for anybody else anymore. I’m going to own my own business,’” she said.
For the first 20 years, Billie Jean sold doughnuts from Hood’s Bakery in Collinsville. Now Pharaoh’s in St. Louis makes a daily delivery.
Gina worked as a retail manager before taking over the coffee shop in 2007. She’s one of Billie Jean’s nine children who grew up in the business.
“You always had something that needed to be done, whether it was stocking or serving the customers or wiping down counters or answering the phone,” said Gina, 49, of East St. Louis.
Billie’s sells plain, glazed and jelly doughnuts, long Johns, cinnamon rolls and apple fritters with prices ranging from 75 cents to $1.25. Coffee costs $1.
Customers also can get soft serve and other kinds of ice cream, as well as soda and chips.
“It’s definitely where coffee and conversation start the day,” Gina said. “Whatever is happening in the community, we talk about it. This is where problems get solved — at least until we walk out the door.”
At a glance
- What: Billie’s Pastries
- Where: 7301 State St. in East St. Louis
- Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
- Seating: 16
- Information: 618-213-6134