Legend has it coffee was discovered when a goat-herder in Abyssinia, while basking in the sun, observed his goats dancing on their hind legs after eating some red berries. Fancying himself a bit of a dancer, the herder tasted the berries and his sleepy eyes waltzed themselves awake. The berry was indeed coffee, and the coffee house was soon to follow.
Centuries later in the U.S., coffee was declared the national beverage by Congress after the Boston Tea Party – which turned out like a lot of parties I’ve attended: Everything ended up in the river and everyone forgot what happened the next day and started drinking whatever was handy – and thus the role of coffee was cemented in the national consciousness. Since then, as evidenced by a recent tour of the coffee shops between 19th and 36th streets on Lyndale Avenue in Southwest, the place of coffee in culture, and the stores that sell it, has evolved.
To determine what the coffee shop has become in an eclectic city and age, I wasn’t out to judge coffee by taste, for I’m not a connoisseur of the stuff, but to instead judge the shops themselves, and occasionally to judge the people in the shops. My criteria for judgment was developed arbitrarily over a cup of coffee at my first stop, Dunn Bros.
Dunn Bros, 1915 Lyndale Ave. S.
Dunn Bros was not without a pleasant ambience (criteria one), though its exposed air ducts and plumbing gave it an industrial feel that almost made me want to do manual labor. Resisting, I held my pencil steadfast and wrote "Art Deco?" This was the only art term I knew. So I made my way to the Internet, where two free computers (the only shop to offer such a service on my route, though all had Wi-Fi) told me some of the finer points of Art Deco. According to Wikipedia, it is "An eclectic form of elegant and stylish modernism, characterized by use of aluminum, stainless steel. …" That seemed about right. So I asked the lady behind the counter if she thought it was Art Deco.
"I wouldn’t say that," she said. "It’s eclectic. How about suburban industrial?"
"That seems about right," I said again, satisfied, and went to look at a piece of art on the wall titled, "Aerial View of Tomorrow," consisting of an exposed computer motherboard fastened to a piece of corrugated tin.
Checking my list of criteria for judgment, I saw that I had written down "information" but had forgotten why. Against one wall was half a canoe crafted into a bookshelf, with a sign that said "Coffee Book Share – don’t bother checking it out – take it home."
The books seemed to qualify as information of some sort, and also nearby was a corkboard with advertisements of shows and services and people for hire – which is also information. One sign said: "Personal Cat Sitting. Someone to spoil your cat when you can’t." That sounded like a pretty cool job, and I got sad thinking about how hard it was to make money writing when I could be happily petting cats.
Dunn Bros also had a nice mix of seating, including comfortable chairs from which to be social and tables upon which to get business done.
Thus, I had my distinguishing criteria of today’s coffee shops – 1) they provide information about various activities, events and services; 2) provide people and a pretense for conversation; 3) provide ambience and a comfortable chair to read or relax in; and/or 4) they provide less-comfortable chairs and tables conducive to getting down to business. I did not see any dancing goats just yet, (scratch criteria No. 5) but I would later see a man dressed in a giant bunny suit.
Caffetto, 708 W. 22nd St.
Nearby, just off Lyndale on 24th was an interesting coffee shop called Caffetto – billed as a "coffee art gallery," and indeed, there was plenty of art on the walls, much of it locally made and avant-garde, such as a portrait using found cardboard for its canvas. Even the tables, where one could get down to business, were customized, with heavy lacquer on seemingly random artifacts like newspaper clippings. One table with clippings from The Onion read "Best Zoo Exhibits" and featured "Snakes: Somewhere in This Room!" and "Suddenly There’s Bears!"
There were also many pictures of sailing ships, which the owner must enjoy, and a basement with Ping-Pong and that dying art form which still maintains a presence in the Midwest – pinball.
For information, they had a bookshelf that held "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoyevsky. And for ambience, the shop had many of what looked to be my grandmother’s chairs and couches, or those of several grandmothers unschooled in feng shui, as nothing matched but was nevertheless comfortable and inviting. Caffetto also had an outdoor seating area – a nice touch in the summer and which Dunn Bros did not have and so until then was not part of my criteria.
Muddy Waters, 2401 Lyndale Ave. S.
The next shop just down the way was the aptly named Muddy Waters at 24th and Lyndale. Outside, the shop had ample picnic table seating, but inside, the seating was uncomfortable in the way of a public school classroom, with hardback chairs and small square tables, which arguably met the criteria of "getting down to business," except the music was too loud to concentrate. Fortunately, I had no business to get down to, so I didn’t mind, until Tom Waits was turned off to play punk rock with indecipherable lyrics, at which point I felt a certain alienation toward the place, which current forms of self-expression seemed inadequate to express. An intricate mural made of broken ceramic glass covering the whole of an inside wall made for unique ambience, but information was in short supply, so bring your own book and cat-petting flyers.
Bob’s Java Hut, 2651 Lyndale Ave. S.
Thus I was off to Bob’s Java Hut on 27th and Lyndale. Here, the theme was indubitably motorcycle and manly, with lamps made of bike gears and motorcycle headlights, and guys in Kevlar pants. One wall of the place opened like a garage door toward Lyndale Avenue, and available reading material consisted of various repair manuals and Chrome magazine.
Those wanting a more comfortable seat than a hardback chair could sit on their hogs, and many of them did so, as everything from BMWs to Harley Davidsons lined the street front. Above the place was a tattoo parlor, and I for one was thankful the beverage of choice was coffee.
Vera’s Café 2901, Lyndale Ave. S.
Just down the street on 29th and Lyndale was Vera’s Café. The place had a beautiful and expansive wooden patio nicely secluded with old wooden doors forming one wall and lending to an altogether cozy outdoor atmosphere. Inside, there was a mix of comfortable chairs and other chairs for that getting-down-to-business thing, while under information the shop had no less than an attached bookstore. As I walked in to the bookshop, male nudity greeted me on various magazine covers, and it became apparent the place had a clientele different from Bob’s but no less predominantly male.
Cars-R-Coffins, 3346 Lyndale Ave. S.
The last shop on the tour was the nondescript (the storefront says only "coffee") Cars-R-Coffins, located at 3346 Lyndale. The place combined the owner’s love of several things; namely, coffee, bikes and literature.
Opened in 2006, the shop sells both coffee and bicycles and performs bike maintenance, and makes about 50/50 in revenue from each in the summer, and a little more on coffee in the winter.
It was a simple decision, according to the owner, who as a freelance journalist found himself writing about bicycling at least as much as consuming coffee, so he opened a shop to focus on both. The place had a gauntlet of books from the esoteric "Horrifically Bad Album Covers," (featuring The H.O.T. Czechs: "Goin’ Bankin"), to "The Literary Cyclist," and a hundred other books about the bike and efficient CFL [compact fluorescent light] bulbs in the ceiling to read by.
While drinking a cup of coffee, one of the employees regaled me with stories. In one such yarn, he spoke about how he once told off Al Franken while the comedian/author/politico was arguing with a cab driver. Franken, it seems, was in a hurry, and wanting a cab; and before the guy (now behind the counter) knew it, he had told Franken to shut his mouth. He insists, however, that he’s a big fan of Al Franken to this day, and can prove it by a picture on his website, goathork.com. He recently had a chance to tell Mr. Franken "no hard feelings" at a recent fundraiser, "while wearing a giant bunny rabbit suit my wife bought me, because she knew I would love it," he said. Sure enough, his blog tells the full story, with photos. Indeed, the store itself has a website whose motto is "Bicycle, Punk Rock, Action," and judging by the writings there, it seems to pedal its case.
So, six coffee shops and six cups of coffee later, I had arrived feeling excited at least as much by the coffee shop, and its evolution, as by the coffee itself. All that was left to do was hop on my bike and burn some caffeine out of my system. Of course, there are even more coffee shops on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, but that’s perhaps for another day and set of arbitrary criteria.
Adam Overland would rather pet cats and drink coffee than write. If you would like to pay him to do either contact him at email@example.com with subject line: "caffeinated cats."