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Full Steam Ahead

Geoffrey Wood: leaping from barista to novelist.

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Half-asleep, standing in line at the Starbucks near Poplar Plaza first thing in the morning, you may need a second to register the guy behind the espresso machine. But just a second. The dark, chaotic hair, the outlandish glasses, the arms flailing like he's waving down an airplane. Good morning! You've just met Geoffrey Wood, Starbucks barista of 10 years, former Graceland tour guide, high school English and drama teacher, Shakespearean actor, poetry translator, and, most recently, author.

Wood' novel Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessarily-Super Hero hits bookstores on June 19th. It's the story of a recently divorced, lifelong barista named James, who suddenly discovers that he can leap through space and time. The hero's life crosses into Wood's reality occasionally but more as an insight into the soul of the fictional over-caffeinated barista who isn't sure if he's tripping on too much espresso or if God is playing a trick on him. In the end, Leaper is about James' attempt to understand faith.

When Wood isn't dreaming up stories about the average joe-slinger gone wild — he wrote Leaper in a furious four weeks — he works the morning shift at the Poplar and Prescott Starbucks. His caffeine and energy level make up for what his customers lack before they get their "fix."

"It's a little like working as a bartender — only we get people who are a different kind of cranky," Wood says. "If everything goes well, they are in and out in two minutes or less."

Wood ought to know, having worked in coffee shops for almost 20 years. It started with a college job at the Coffee Beanery in the Mall of Memphis in the early 1990s and then a stint at Lambert's Coffee in Germantown.

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What Wood was dealing with was nothing fancy — mostly good, brewed coffee. Wood truly lost his coffee virginity with an espresso in a cafe on the Champs-Elysées. In Paris with a theater group from the University of Memphis, Wood followed his teacher into a café and ordered what she ordered. "It was an espresso that changed my life," he says. When Wood returned from France, he knew what a real espresso was supposed to taste like and that there was no returning to coffee as he had known it.

His Starbucks career began when he and his wife moved to Chicago in 1997. With a degree in theater from the University of Memphis and a short time at Northwestern University, he felt that theater for him was in Chicago. Working in a coffee shop would allow him enough time for both the city and the stage.

Wood started at a Starbucks in Evanston that served a load of commuter-train passengers every 10 minutes. "Learning how to be fast — you have to be fast to survive there," Wood says of the time. "It's Chicago. Those guys don't cut you any slack."

Because Chicago was a few degrees too cold for his wife, the couple moved to Albuquerque. Wood continued at Starbucks and got an M.A. in theater directing and medieval studies from the University of New Mexico. He also befriended a Methodist minister who shared his ideas for a coffeehouse ministry and rekindled his passion for liturgical theater.

Raised Southern Baptist, Wood is on the verge of converting to Catholicism — a step he spared his superhero James, who is a devout but rebellious Catholic. It seems like the character's only hope for salvation is Father Chavez. When James needs to talk to someone about his strange superpower, he attempts to confide in Chavez. The problem is how to explain it.

In real life, Wood's marriage didn't last, and he followed the minister's family to Texas, working at Starbucks, recuperating from the divorce, and writing. While it's not the first book he's written, Leaper is the first one published.

When Wood returned to Memphis last summer, Starbucks put him at one of its busiest stores, knowing that after 10 years on the espresso machine he was fast. Wood, for his part, can't stand not to be busy. "My mind is going constantly unless we're really busy. Then I don't have time to think. The perfect job," he says.

Wood talks 100 miles a minute, often about more than one subject. He might not know your name, but he has your drink ready before you barely enter the store. When he works the bar, paper cups and plastic lids are stacked to the ceiling and enough milk and coffee are at the ready so that Wood can "pull shots" even if disaster strikes and, as his colleagues like to joke, "the bar floats out onto Poplar."

The regular customers, he's got trained: Place order here, pick up drink there, have money out to pay cashier. And he's been known to take liberties with his clientele — a spontaneous nickname for a customer, for example, or making a regular's drink before checking if that is indeed the intended order. Wood is aware of the thin line he is walking and every so often throws up his hands in a "I'm just the coffee boy" gesture and retreats behind the espresso machine.

In Leaper, James gets fired from his coffee-shop job for this sort of behavior, but that seems unlikely for Wood. By this point, he's got something of a following, with the customers engaged, amused, startled, and sometimes shocked. To take that away from the caffeine-craving crowd could cause a riot.

Geoffrey Wood will read from and sign Leaper at Bookstar in Poplar Plaza on Tuesday, June 19th, at 7 p.m. and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Thursday, July 12th, at 6 p.m.

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