(Published in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of GivingCity Austin)
Joshua Bingaman, owner of Progress Coffee on Austin’s eastside, is not the typical California immigrant coming to get what he can out of Austin. Instead, he’s giving everything he is.
When he was in high school, Joshua Bingaman ran away from home in Oklahoma to Los Angeles to be a musician. He also wanted to escape his parents. Their religiosity played out in ways Bingaman just didn’t understand.
In L.A. he wrote songs, sang and performed, and he even recorded a couple of albums. But when his older brother opened a shoe store, Subterranean Shoe Room, in the Mission District of San Francisco, Bingaman left L.A. to join him.
Yes, he loves shoes. But it was the store that changed him. The Bingaman’s created a friendly oasis in the working-class neighborhood, which was still coming out of its gangs and punks past and had been mostly written off by other businesses. While the store got street cred for its shoe selection, it also built a community by hosting events, raising money for local causes and inviting anybody in the neighborhood to join in. “The only reason I fueled off of the store was the people,” says Bingaman.
With the goal of franchising the store, Bingaman and his wife set out for Austin. But instead of opening a store, Bingaman opened a coffee shop.
“People told us to come check it out,” remembers Bingaman. “We didn’t know why we would want to be here. But we both fell in love with the city and the opportunity we saw it to be.”
At a time when everyone seemed to be opening a little coffee shop in East Austin, Progress stood out. Bingaman had created that same Subterranean scene from the Mission District here on East 5th Street.
“It’s the mix of people,” says Bingaman. “I mean, you come here and see CPAs, rock stars, artists, hermanos, families…. They all come together and it’s not because of coffee. It’s because Progress gives them a reason to come together.”Bingaman is a generous businessman, perhaps overly generous. He confesses to sneaking cash into the backpacks of his employees. He hosts fundraisers and concerts for local causes and artists. His sells roasted coffee beans that benefit local nonprofits like Project LOOP and the Sustainable Food Center. He puts his heart and soul and personal resources into Progress and keeping that community alive.
But he still really digs shoes. While traveling to Istanbul years back to reconnect with extended family, Bingaman discovered a shoemaker that still made boots by hand. He connected with it right away and created HELM Boots, picturing a shoe store built around the same ethos as Subterranean and Progress, one that cherishes people and honors their contributions.
Bingaman’s since mended his relationship with his parents. He gets their passion now if not their means. He’s a father himself, with a third child on the way. But he probably puts more money, time and soul into Progress and Helm than he can afford… at least by other people’s standards.
“I consider myself successful if I’m surrounded by good people and not too much debt,” says Bingaman. “I’ve always found this cycle of self-support, I’ve always thought that tomorrow will meet tomorrow’s provisions.”