Coffeehouse Organ

By the dawn of the 19th century London claimed 2,000 coffeehouses, Thomas Asch was saying. “They were known as penny universities because of the discussions that went on there and the vibrancy of the cultural life.

“For instance, the British Spectator was founded in a coffeehouse. The Guardian used to get its mail in a coffeehouse. The Royal Society started as a coffee-drinking club. And of course you know Lloyds of London was a coffeehouse.”

Well, we know it now. We asked Asch how many of those 2,000 coffeehouses are still around, and he said none. The British East India Company put an end to the import of coffee beans because its own economic interests hinged on tea. Today a Londoner’s idea of coffee is Nescafe. Here in Chicago the number of coffeehouses has jumped from 60 to 130 in the last four years, but it’s too soon to call a cultural fashion a spiritual sea change. An immediate threat is the Brazilian frost that’s inflated the price of a can of Maxwell House; it also drove up the price of the gourmet brews favored by cafe society. Trade in the coffeehouses hasn’t been affected yet, said Asch, but “the shock is only weeks old.” He said some of the establishments “started charging for refills. Some increased the price of a bottomless cup.”

Asch knows this stuff. He’s an owner of Scenes, the theater-oriented cafe on Clark Street. And he’s publisher of the free monthly Strong Coffee. Just beginning its fifth year, Strong Coffee, edited by cofounder Martin Northway, is the same savory blend of quirky voices as the cafes where it’s distributed. “What we wanted to do,” says Northway, “was create a medium where you’d meet the regulars, a few surprises, and everything was up for discussion.”

Asch and Northway started Strong Coffee with an investment of $1,000 each. It’s all they’ve ever put in, and they’ve never taken a penny out, aside from a few dollars to buy the odd pizza for the interns. “But we’re afloat and we’ll stay afloat,” promised Asch. Fortunately he practices law on the side. Northway’s a free-lance writer.

Northway fills the paper with material that exists solely because somebody couldn’t resist creating it. The wise dictum of Samuel Johnson, himself a fixture in the establishments of London’s cafe heyday–“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”–does not apply here. We spotted a superb example of this refreshing lack of rhyme or reason in the August issue–an endless but edifying interview with grumpy flamenco guitarist Tomas de Utrera, who in the best tradition of the caffeinated intellectual assails modern society, particularly the one he’s living in. “If you ask me about coming to Chicago, I would have to say I now think it was a mistake,” says de Utrera, “the only mistake I ever made in my life–major mistake–other than not watching out for a taxicab that ran into me.”

Strong Coffee–circulation 20,000–reminds us of the flimsy early Reader. But the Reader was designed with marketing ambitions as well as literary theories in mind. Strong Coffee just wishes to be literary.

“I want it to be an integral part of the cultural stimulus that I think coffeehouses by their nature create,” Asch said. “Do you want all of my cockamamy theory? I think the rise of coffeehouses is a sign of a maturing culture. They’re places where one can sit back and look at things instead of rushing around and doing things. Voltaire used to sit in coffeehouses all day. He’s reported to have drunk 40 cafe mochas a day.”

Asch was warming to the subject of the cafe. “It’s a place where people from all walks of life have a chance to interact. In that way it’s more democratic than the information highway, which requires expensive equipment. Maybe this is more like the information parking lot. [We sensed a verbal coin that’s seen heavy use.] Once we were having a meeting of Strong Coffee at a coffeehouse, and one table over it turned out to be Pure magazine. I’ve seen theater groups, improv groups organizing at cafes. And another thing I like about the cafes–at least where the community can support it–they’re well integrated, generationally, racially, and ethnically.”

Asch told us a story. He thought it was just amusing, but it has a moral. It concerned the mayor of Vienna. “When he heard there was a revolution in Russia he said, “Well, ha, ha, ha. I suppose our little Herr Trotsky was involved in that?’ Well, yes he was. In Vienna he was known just as someone who sat around in coffeehouses. No one could imagine he could actually be involved in a revolution.”

Our theory of coffeehouses has long been that they’re full of bristling intellects who, whether they’re organizing magazines or theaters or revolutions or just playing the guitar, sooner or later slam down their mugs and mutter, “I’m a genius, but no one takes me seriously in this town.” If it’s a Chicago coffeehouse the odds are twice as good no one does. And won’t, until they make it on the coast.

Asch related a disconcerting experience. He was called by a fact checker from Details magazine who was working on a piece about a cutting-edge cultural trend: the emergence of the literary coffeehouse magazine in the burgeoning bohemia of the American big city.

“They wanted to confirm that we were a literary magazine, and they wanted to know our starting date,” Asch said. “I told them September 1990, and there was this silence. And then they said, ‘Oh, it’s supposed to be about recent trends.'”

Decently, the item on “bean zines” in the new Details does mention Strong Coffee, along with entries in San Francisco and New York. But the focus is on LA’s Caffeine, which has three-quarters the circulation of Asch’s magazine but is two years younger.

Sun-Times Labor Pains

The Newspaper Guild contract at the Sun-Times expires at the end of the month. Not only have contract negotiations not progressed, the two sides are still haggling over ground rules. After finally agreeing to hold the talks inside the Sun-Times building, which is where they’ve always been, instead of at some theoretically neutral site guild members would have found inconvenient, management has continued to insist that only two members be allowed to negotiate on company time. It’s the custom for members to sit in when they don’t have work to do. Do that this year, management has warned, and you’re docked.

So last week the guild protested by “working to contract.” This is the hallowed practice in which unionized work forces stop being flexible to remind their bosses they usually are. And last Tuesday the guild hit the bricks. More than 50 members picketed the Bears luncheon the Sun-Times was sponsoring at Harry Caray’s. The chants and posters that weren’t denouncing the contract terms presented by management were denouncing management for failing to get down to any serious discussion of them:

“Take Back Your Give Backs.” “Time to Kickoff Real Talks.” “Off Time Is Our Time.” “Negotiating, the Smart Choice.” “Management Stalling unBEARable.”

One placard suggested that the guild’s concerns go well beyond this contract. The Sun-Times has changed owners since the 1991 talks, and the American Publishing Company has been axing employees everywhere but in editorial. In the newsroom it’s contented itself so far with offering buyout packages to senior employees, Vernon Jarrett most prominent among them. Could layoffs come next?

“Trash the Staff & You Trash the Paper” was a slogan that sounds much less like a war cry than a plea for reason.

News Bites

From our notebook:

Revealing a touch of naivete about his business, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that he just discovered on vacation that “it is now almost impossible to find cogent information about what’s happening in the United States in even the upmarket London newspapers.”

Instead of dispatches on health care and the crime bill, Rich found himself reading “a steady diet of American dispatches suggesting an antic United States so foreign to my experience that it could be a fantasy devised by Madame Tussaud’s.”

What do Americans who need to turn a phrase reach for when the subject’s London? They reach for Madame Tussaud’s. We’re guessing here, but we doubt if the same metaphorical demands are put on that wax museum in England. The secret to foreign reporting from anywhere is to paint the place in broad, familiar strokes as a dotty, troubled land you’d probably rather read about than leave home to visit. Hence the headline Rich noticed in a tony London paper: “Feminists win right to travel topless on New York subway.”

The Chicago that pops up in the distant press, the New York Times not necessarily excluded, is a dependably “antic” if harrowing city in which the spirit of Al Capone forever lurks. And what is more antic than the England of the American media, the one that consists entirely of a royal family and soccer thugs? The IRA cease-fire aside, can you think of a single piece of recent news out of the UK worth knowing?

Richard Locher’s cartoon Monday on the Tribune editorial page was far from the meanest piece of art we’ve seen lately, although it advances the formidable case that “conservative wit” has become an oxymoron. There’s a gunman holding up a store in panel one, shooting hoops in a second panel labeled “midnight basketball program,” and carrying out a stickup in panel three while grinning at the reader, “A little time off there for good behavior.”

Locher’s entitled to make a lame statement about midnight basketball leagues, but he shouldn’t make it on tiptoes. Those leagues are about one thing: black inner-city crime. Yet Locher made his thug a white guy. Speaking of oxymorons, “coy cartoonist” means not a cartoonist at all.

From the Northwest Herald, the headline you’d most love to see in anybody’s newspaper but your own: “Atomic bombers criticize Enola homosexual exhibit.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.