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Lebanon coffee shop targeted on social media over lawmaker employee’s gun bill

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 2/15/2020 10:41:58 PM
Modified: 2/15/2020 10:41:55 PM

LEBANON — A social media dustup has left one Upper Valley restaurant feeling under siege.

Earlier this month, Lucky’s Coffee Garage, a cozy breakfast and lunch nook on the northeast corner of Colburn Park in Lebanon, drew the ire of gun rights advocates, who launched a campaign to trash the cafe’s online reputation.

Why did a coffee shop run afoul of the Second Amendment crowd? Because Lucky’s employs a New Hampshire state representative who is co-sponsoring legislation to limit the capacity of gun magazines.

The antagonistic posts and counter-posts that erupted on Instagram and Facebook are a textbook example in how public commerce and personal opinions can intermingle on social media, and how quickly the inevitable conflicts can escalate.

Last Saturday morning, David Stark, the owner of Discreet Ballistics in Plainfield, posted a comment on the company’s Instagram and Facebook pages pointing out that state Rep. Tim Josephson, D-Canaan — who is a co-sponsor of a House bill that would ban “large capacity” ammunition magazines — is the general manager of Lucky’s.

Introduced by Josephson and eight other Democratic lawmakers on Dec. 6, HB 1608 would prohibit “the manufacture, sale, transfer, and possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices,” which it defines for a “long gun” as “more than 10 rounds” of ammunition and for a “hand gun” as “more than 15 rounds of ammunition,” according to the text of the bill.

If enacted — unlikely given Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto authority — a violation of the law would be class A misdemeanor, punishable by a $77 fine.

That was enough to launch Stark, whose company specializes in making “subsonic” ammunition, which travels below the speed of sound and does not make the distinctive “crack” noise made by a bullet breaking the sound barrier.

In a brief initial post on the morning of Feb. 1 that tied Josephson to Lucky’s, Stark implored his 8,191 Instagram followers and his 917 Facebook friends to “reject statism and get your overpriced coffee elsewhere.”

The post was accompanied by a photo of the former red brick filling station on the northeast corner of Colburn Park in Lebanon that is now Lucky’s, which Deb Shinnlinger and her husband, Dave Shinnlinger, opened in 2017. Josephson, who represents the towns of Canaan, Dorchester and Wentworth, has worked there since the beginning.

Shinnlinger was with her daughter at Supercuts in West Lebanon that Saturday morning when she received a notification on her phone that Lucky’s Coffee Garage had been tagged in social media posts by an ammunition maker she’d never heard of.

Stung by the out-of-nowhere attack on her business because of an employee’s work as an elected official, Shinnlinger said that in the heat of the moment “while sitting in the hairdressing chair,” she reflexively tapped off a reply.

“Large capacity ammunition device? ... Why on earth would anyone need this??!! No thank you. We fully support Tim in his support of this. More guns and ammunition is never the answer either,” Shinnlinger wrote, punctuating the post with an emoji face of a wide smiling grin.

Her comment, perhaps unsurprisingly, provoked more social media blasts from Discreet Ballistics and Stark’s allies.

Shinnlinger wished in hindsight that she hadn’t replied.

“Do I have regrets about posting that with my Lucky’s account?” Shinnlinger asked during an interview at her office last week, four days after the initial flare-up online. “It was a knee-jerk reaction.”

Stark saw Shinnlinger’s riposte as a call to clap back with a gotcha denunciation.

“Terrific, now we know where the ownership of Lucky’s stands. Thanks for the clarification,” Stark posted on his social media pages.

Before Shinnlinger and her daughter had left the hair salon, followers of Discreet Ballistics’ social media pages began posting negative reviews about Lucky’s on Yelp, TripAdvisor and other sites. Others posted denigrating comments about the shop on Discreet Ballistics’ social media pages.

For Shinnlinger, the flag-and-block of bogus reviews and negative comments became a game of whack-a-mole that she described on Lucky’s own social media pages.

(Fake negative reviews, Shinnlinger explained, hurt her business because they not only can deter potential new customers but push down information about the cafe in search results.)

She blamed an “ammunition manufacturer in the Upper Valley” — intentionally avoiding identifying Discreet Ballistics by name — for inciting its followers to engage in fake customer reviews and online trolling.

Stark responded on his company’s social media pages. He claimed it was an “outright lie” that he “encouraged anyone” to make hateful comments and that he did not “encourage any sort of response or fake reviews of any kind.”

In Stark’s version of events, all he did was “illuminated” Josephson’s “policy position.”

Shinnlinger counters that it doesn’t take much to churn the social media melting pot into a roiling cesspool, especially on a hot-button issue like gun regulations.

“I had zero idea who these people were,” Deb Shinnlinger said of the negative posts. “It comes in and just keeps coming in.” (In recent days the fake reviews and comments have subsided somewhat after Shinnlinger posted screen shots of some of the screeds.)

Shinnlinger was so disturbed by the tone of some of the comments aimed at Lucky’s, she filed a complaint with the Lebanon Police Department. (Last week, Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said via email that “our investigation determined that the content of the messages posted did not violate New Hampshire law and therefore it was closed.”)

When Shinnlinger took to Lucky’s own social media platforms to post screenshots of some of the more sinister comments — “I’ll make it my goal to let EVERY gun owner in the state know what you’re up to … enjoy the fall out,” someone posted under the handle “blackdirtdiaries” — Lucky’s actual customers responded with an outpouring of praise.

Stark, in an interview, said he was incensed when Lucky’s posted comments on its website accusing him of fomenting hate speech among his followers.

“People started commenting. ... I’m sure some of them were rude, some were probably not friendly. I tried to monitor that,” Stark said.

He took umbrage at being characterized as an instigator who condoned “hateful, misogynistic and racist” comments.

“I am a very tolerant person. I do not have a hateful bone in my body,” Stark said. “But when somebody tries to restrict my freedom, I am not going to acquiesce.”

Unless it is big enough or willing to risk losing customers, a business should try to avoid wading into politically divisive issues, said Barry Rotman, a mentor with the volunteer small-business advisory nonprofit Score Upper Valley and Norwich resident.

“It’s not just social media. They could be picketing outside or driving trucks with signs on them around Colburn Park,” Rotman said. Even proclaiming that the business is apolitical and nonpartisan is not without risk, said Rotman, who owns a carpet and furniture store in Massachusetts.

So what’s the right strategy?

“I think it’s really important to remain aloof from the issue,” he advised. “Leave the business as sacred grounds.”

Josephson, a 20-year resident of New Hampshire who lives in Canaan, said he wasn’t bothered by Stark expressing an opposing viewpoint, but he was upset over the way his employer had been drawn into the debate.

“I have always kept my politics completely separate from my work life,” Josephson, who does not have an ownership stake in Lucky’s, said in a statement.

He criticized the “local business” — Josephson did not mention Stark by name — for going public on social media without reaching out to him first in his capacity as a legislator.

“There is a forum for talking about bills and a process for discussion ... instead they attacked my place of employment. That should give us all pause.”

Stark, for his part, said he is “more than willing to sit down” with Josephson. But, he adds, “just not at Lucky’s.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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