My O.C.: In Praise of Indie Coffeehouses

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At first, I didn’t understand it. After I married my husband, we made the 45-minute move from Harbor City to Fullerton. One of the first things I did was seek out coffee shops, the unofficial office of every writer. And I didn’t get it.

The coffee shops—The Night Owl, McClain’s, even Max Blooms Cafe Noir—were unlike anything I’d encountered. I found the differences alarming. In Harbor City, I holed up in a Starbucks, enjoying standardized brews and excellent Wi-Fi. But I found few individually owned coffeehouses, even though my old haunt boasts plenty of family operated panaderias and 24-hour boba joints. Fullerton, too, has Starbucks and The Coffee Bean, but it also has a wealth of alternative coffee places, including Veronese Gallery Cafe and Green Bliss.

During my first visits to those places, I was put off by the worn, mismatched furniture and strange flow of hipsters, vagrants, and college students. The places felt like houses, not businesses. Instead of baristas wearing nametags and matching aprons, I was served by an array of youthful workers who all looked like members of an indie band. And the hours! Some were open as late as 3 a.m.

Even more intriguing were the drinks. My coffee would vary from server to server, each cup different. At The Night Owl, I quickly focused on the wiry guy with plugs in his ears who made my preferred iced-blended caramel drink. The whole experience reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then one day I overheard a conversation between a server and a woman wearing dark red lipstick (and pulling it off with impressive panache).

“I do all my best poetry here,” she said.

The server nodded. “That’s the point.”

It was a simple exchange, but it immediately took me back to Istanbul, Turkey. I’d gone there with my university’s travel group after graduation. I had my diploma but not quite enough units to fulfill my degree. It was a stressful time. Life decisions followed me like dark shadows. Should I pursue writing? How could I make money doing that? Should I reconcile with my old boyfriend?

One day, it all got to be too much. I broke off from my fellow travelers to explore Istanbul on my own. I wandered through the streets, fascinated by the mix of Eastern and Western influences, glad for the distractions. Eventually, as I pushed my way toward the fringes of the city, I came across a coffee shop quite different from the kitschy places closer to city center with their Ottoman-inspired decor and English menus. Instead, this place was built into the side of a shambling shop, and not a single tourist was there. I saw just a woman in a headscarf writing something long and detailed in a notebook, and a man with a thick beard strumming a baglama, an instrument similar to a guitar. I managed to order a cup of coffee using pantomime and pointing, then watched as the proprietor brewed my coffee in a dented pot over charcoals. He smiled as it was delivered to me in the traditionally tiny cup and saucer. I sat on a tattered sofa next to a chipped table and glanced at Turkish newspapers spread across it.

The memory is vivid. I can recall exactly how I felt, and how moved I was by the simple art of taking coffee in a place far from home. I wished then that I had brought my laptop. And I don’t think my urge to write was simply because I was in a foreign land (though I must now pay homage to all the writers who found inspiration in Istanbul, including Agatha Christie and Yasar Kemal). There was just something poignant about the experience, something so singularly different than the cliché tourist offerings I’d encountered before. I stared at the newspapers printed in words I didn’t understand and silently resolved to pursue my dream.

Amid the unconventional decor of Orange County’s indie coffeehouses, I feel the same way I did that day in Istanbul. There’s nothing standardized about The Night Owl. It’s the equivalent of a stimulating, bohemian art house. Historic events and art have come from such coffeehouses. The French Revolution germinated in the Café de Procope; Hemingway referenced his favorite one in “The Sun Also Rises”; Sotheby’s, the renowned auction house, began in a British coffee shop; and J.K. Rowling penned much of “Harry Potter” in the Elephant House, a coffee and teahouse in Edinburgh.

I’m not sure if Starbucks has yet produced that kind of yield.

I’ve since embraced my coffeehouses in all their boho beauty. In fact, I’m not sure I can write anywhere else now. Other places feel too clean, too safe. Art is never safe, and places such as McClain’s enable its free expression. The worn upholstery, sun-aged curtains, and scuffed floors provide a welcoming spot that eschews perfection for originality. They remind me of the universality of the artistic experience—from Istanbul to Orange County, they nurture the human voice, from writing to art to poetry to music. I’m now convinced that any decent writing I produce is in part due to these strangely beautiful places.

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