Sometimes even George Orwell had to take a break from writing about injustice, oppression, and totalitarianism and turn his attention to his immediate personal happiness and comfort. In his 1946 essay “The Moon Under Water,” he describes in rhapsodic detail his favorite London pub, a quiet, old-fashioned sort of place where the barmaids call you “dear” (more high-class than “ducky”) and where you can get a creamy draft stout in a china mug along with a good, inexpensive lunch, which you can enjoy, depending on the season, in a comfortable chair by the fire or under a tree in the back garden with your family. The kicker is, of course, that this paragon of pub perfection doesn’t exist, except in his imagination.
I usually think of “The Moon Under Water” whenever I visit a new bar or coffeehouse, and a recent trip to Kibbitznest Books, Brews & Blarney was no exception. Will this be the place, the one with good coffee and good food and comfortable chairs and music that is not intrusively bad and outdoor seating if I want it and isn’t too far from my apartment so I can visit regularly?
While Kibbitznest is not my Moon Under Water, it comes as close as any place I’ve found in Chicago. For me, its biggest flaw is its location on Clybourn near Webster, a part of town that’s not convenient for me personally. For others, it may be that it doesn’t have Wi-Fi and that the management requests that laptops remain in their carrying cases and smartphones be used sparingly in order to strike a balance between the online and real worlds. Instead of typing at people on the Internet, they want you to limit your interactions to the physical here and now, by talking to other people over drinks or board games, by reading books, or by writing letters using analog methods such as pen and paper or a typewriter (which is provided). It’s like going back to the 20th century!
Though Kibbitznest bills itself as a “bookbar,” it strives more for an old-fashioned coffeehouse atmosphere. It has incorporated itself as a 501(c)(3), supported by profits from the cafe and bookstore. On its website, the founders, Annie and Lewis Kostiner, list their goals, among them, “To encourage debate, active participation, independent research, seeing all sides of an issue, participating in and/or enjoying cultural experiences, thinking critically and independently, and the examination of existing theories.”
The evening I spent at Kibbitznest was not quite that enriching, though I did participate in a rousing debate of Cubs versus Sox. However, I did enjoy browsing the shelves of used books, most of which have been donated and are available for sale at low prices. (A friend found a copy of A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren by Simone de Beauvoir for $4, a tremendous bargain.) It was also pleasant to sit at the bar and browse the menu, which includes some unexpected and welcome entries like cherry cider and miniature Vienna hot dogs. It was pleasant to sit in a comfortable chair and kibbitz while nibbling from a dish of spicy Marcona almonds and sipping a cup of very good herbal tea, prepared with hot milk instead of water. (Upon hearing I had a cold, the bartender added a small cup of honey.)
There are musical performances at Kibbitznest, as well as lectures and discussions led by teachers at the U. of C.’s Graham School of General Studies. (In March you can learn about Rousseau and education and Andrew Carnegie and “The Gospel of Wealth.” Those are separate events.) But there are also three rooms, so you can avoid them if you want.
There have been other attempts to establish coffeehouses that approximate the sociable, mostly work-free environments last seen in the 1990s. I’m thinking of La Colombe, which initially had no Wi-Fi but then quietly reversed its policy and is now as full of laptops as any other coffee shop in town. Although I sometimes yearn for something resembling 18th-century London coffeehouse culture and feel personal nostalgia for the hours I spent back in college hanging out in cafes wasting time with friends, these days I am just as guilty as using a coffee shop as a work space as anyone. I will also admit to plugging my ears with earbuds to avoid listening to the ambient music or making conversation with anyone around me.
Still, the Kibbitznest is a worthy experiment. It seems to me that, especially since the election and inauguration, people, whatever their political beliefs, are more eager to talk to one another in person in order to assure themselves that they are not alone. It probably helps that it’s open mostly in the late afternoons and evenings, after standard working hours, and that it serves booze and ice cream as well as caffeinated beverages. The night I visited, at least, the experiment seemed to be working. There was a gathering around the bar, and a few browsers by the bookshelves, and a couple of groups had broken out the board games.
I plan to go back soon. I’ll bring a book. Maybe it will be the start of a beautiful conversation and friendship. I also wouldn’t mind if a bartender called me “ducky.”
Kibbitznest Books, Brews & Blarney 2212 N. Clybourn, 773-360-7591, kibbitznest.com