Stephen W. McGuire [firstname.lastname@example.org]
South Austin’s Penny University
One of the dubious gifts of Africa and Arabia given the fair hairs of Europe is coffee. Surely worse than syphilis and tobacco which later erupted from the New World, the coffee bean was first chewed in Ethiopia for its stimulating effect before it migrated to Arabia. Here folks roasted out the bitterness and brewed a palatable beverage. By the time it came to Europe, it was leaving a trail of fear and loathing every bit over the top as the one still left by marijuana: The Catholic Church once considered banning the stuff because of its connection to Islam. But in 1600 Pope Clement VIII deigned to sip, and declared coffee “…so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” A more stunning and speedy display of moral relativism is hard to find.
The Arabs did more than introduce roasting to the bean. They came up with the coffee house where singers sang and dancers danced and matters of business, religion and state were discussed. That last topic got the new institution into trouble, with proprietors sewed up in leather and dumped into rivers.
The house survived and spread. In post-Elizabethan England coffee houses were called “penny universities,” owing to the wide-ranging talk by cheapskate patrons paying a cent-a-cup (not surprisingly, here also started the heretical practice of giving TIPS, to insure prompt service).
But the stakes got higher when the British were evicted from the U.S. Jill Lepore, in the October 16, 2006 New Yorker, describes the fate of anti-royalists-on-caffeine: “‘I am for equality. Why, no kings!’ one Londoner shouted in a coffee house, and was promptly sent to prison for a year and a half.”
kaffa dens served as metaphor for conspiracy and rebellion. Mark Derewicz, writing for the University of North Carolina’s Endeavor magazine, reported that U.S. intelligence missed (wonder of wonders) this analysis concerning the likely overthrow of the Shah of Iran: “…common Iranians were giving ‘serious coffee-house thought to other possibilities’ besides the monarchy for the first time in twenty years.” The Shah went down, and the power of thought under the influence of the bean was fixed.
Today, the coffee house has been revived in big all-American fashion: the mega-franchise. Business web sites see the coffee house “sector” as viable and still expanding, such that Starbucks recently bought up Coffee Equipment Company and its advanced Clover machine, thereby getting a piece of the action from any independents contemplating use of the device. Re-packaged as clean, well-lighted places, houses service that all-important comfort zone for kick-back entrepreneurs wanting a home away from home and a backroom instead of a board room. What once got you thrown into rivers, fomented revolutions and busted the seams of art is now besotted by business. You’ll look long and hard to find a place where you can plug-out and rap on subjects which cause folks nearby to get up and move away.
We come to Bouldin Creek Coffee House.
This place started up in 2000, displacing a taco joint at South First and Elizabeth, and now has the temerity to serve up vegetarian food. Cheekier still, the food is good, plentiful and cheap. And there’s that No. 2 Jet Fuel called the house brew. But the most treacherous thing about Bouldin is expression. Get past the cognitive dissonance of cell phones, the obsessed “people of the thumb” and ghostly lap top frowns, and you’ll hear real mouth-to-mouth talk. Expect to find old men favoring legal pot, long-hair conservatives, butched-out dykes, cross-dressers, women of vast and exotic hair, kids playing in the gravel, dogs, the house cat Mesa, and a few well-coiffed couples wondering what the hell they just walked in to. And there is low-keyed critical review of the new north wall mural, that big booming art-cum-mission statement for any firm.
Can Bouldin have a mission in the shadow of the franchise? The Sloan Brothers, writing in Startup Blog, contend “Starbucks created the coffee house culture. They got people worldwide to pay nearly $2 for a cup of coffee when just before people paid a quarter.”
Raising prices creates culture? Say it ain’t so.
“That’s exactly right,” says Leslie Martin, owner of Bouldin Creek. The page-cut swayback blonde looks younger than her thirty-eight years, but the gaze is steady, competent and in-charge for eight years now. “We would not be able to make money on three, four-dollar latte unless folks felt they had to have one everyday; Starbucks did that. But I want these people to come here instead of Starbucks.” Given Starbuck’s recent travails, that wish could become a trend.
Martin’s vision began early. She came to Austin from Houston in 1988, and graduated from U.T. with a deaf education degree.
“I wanted a local business like there used to be. All the places I went to — Quacks [Quackenbush], Les Amis — are gone. I wanted to bring that back, a place where people can get to know each other.”
And that took food.
“I offered food because it was something other [houses] weren’t doing, something people could snack on. It turned into a restaurant.”
But Martin hadn’t cooked before.
“I looked at books, researched, practiced at my house, experimented and let people who work here contribute. I was surprised it took off so well.”
I’m no connoisseur of coffee and stick to the potent house; you can find the fancy stuff brewed up by equipment sounding like a triple-expansion steam engine. I will note the food: this stuff is quite good. Try the popular Summer Sammitch, the inexpensive Slacker’s Banquet, or big tasty tacos like The Neal, with sautéed onions, jalapenos, garlic, egg and cheese, and Jason’s Fave, whose “chorizo” can fool any pig meat aficionado. (Breakfasts, plates and “sammitches” all fall below seven dollars.) Then top off with a selection of local and indy beer, going for two bucks ‘twixt four and eight p.m.
There was something else other houses weren’t doing.
While many local businesses like kitschy exotica (that’s “Weird” affixed on the locus sigilli) they aren’t too big on all that dreadful political stuff. Martin wants that political stuff.
“It’s important to me. We probably have the most diverse crowd in town. I like someone with a BMW sitting next to someone with dreadlocks.”
Inside, the walls are hung with calls for protest, petitions against corporate subsidies, band promos and art. One announces “feminist hip hop, theatre and music from Cuba, chanting and spoken word,” and pictures a camo-clad woman wearing That Star and toting a fanciful assault rifle. Another reminds folks to “Keep Austin Pagan” by joining in a “spiral dance” at a rival house. Tables are strewn with ‘zines, alternatives and stapled-together volumes of poetry. A newspaper box is filled with books for prisoners. A big book of once-blank pages now pops with slap-happy art. Add to it.
But outside is where it’s happening. Maybe because laptops have but one outlet, maybe because tobacco smokers have thinned out the prim and puritanical, but there is a polyglot of people who seem forever caught at the Managua airport when the coup hit. Martin likes it that way.
“We could have added more plugs [for laptops] outside, but I want people to interact.”
That can be unnerving. Some recent topics: gripes about street shutdowns due to the forty-eleventh Austin jog-a-thon, crappy bike routes, gentrification of South Austin, Bush’s corporatization of America, the war on drugs, Bush’s war on Iraq, Bush’s impending war on Iran, women getting advice on guns, and speculation on whether or not Bush will leave office in January, and what to do about it. Recently, two patrons nearly came to fisticuffs over the historical origins of algebra. Put that up against your colors or the horse you rode in on.
(That spark of politics does not jump from staff to ordering-customers. Martin frowns on barista-tude, restaurantese for snotty coffee house attitude toward customers wanting franchise faves.)
On some evenings, under one of Bouldin’s two grand live oaks, “Camp Camp” comes to Bouldin, featuring one vaudeville act after another against a bed sheet screen. Participants and viewers wear costumes in totemic honor of some creature long-displaced by the city; rough-trade poetry is spouted and songs are belted, some rather good. Seating? “Festival.”
One Sunday afternoon, a trio of musicians wandered in and artfully negotiated Rhinehart, classical, bossa nova and lyrics of “Roast beef sandwich with zits on a happy face; I relate to Julie through four seventy-three.” Even the order-up numbers of fast-food alienation carry the secret numerology of unrequited love. Consumer Tip: inquire locally about “secret shows.” I attended one where candle-lit trails led to the bed of West Bouldin Creek and a clutch of un-amped musicians playing under moon light. Several close passes of Missouri Pacific freight provided intermission acts. Wear hiking shoes.
Martin’s realized visions come with headaches. There is the namesake creek: “We have a problem with critters.” There is the building’s size: “It gets cramped. You have to be tight, gotta be on your game. We considered adding bar seating along the wall, but that eliminates space for people meeting in groups.” And there is the bedroom-sized kitchen: “Ridiculous. We can’t expand because of parking.” In the bowels of City zoning, kitchen size is anatomically related to parking.
We come full-circle to the raison-d’etre for Bouldin Creek: people who can get to know each other. Nothing better describes ideal Austin than the image of “place;” a board & batten neighborhood and culture where nothing is proper. But Martin’s attitudes run a little counter-intuitive in counter-culture Austin.
“I’m looking for something else,” she says. “The place is too small.” What’s more, she thinks moving is neither impediment nor sacrilege: “We can gain by improving service. I feel confident we could put our energy into [new ideas] like a Mothers’ Day Out, or growing the bike shed [a repair facility behind the restaurant] or developing a non-profit connection to Bouldin or the whole thing going non-profit. All that’s on the backburner due to the problems.”
A future site might be farther south or on the east side, and she concedes it “might not be as nice outside, but I’ve got to get on it.”
There’s a hint of eleventh hour in her voice. It doesn’t take a systems analyst to see the “Order Here” line is getting longer and it doesn’t take an urban planner to see Bouldin Creek Coffee House soon surrounded by condos.
Martin’s sense of place is not bound by quaint construction materiel.
A thousand years ago Omar Khayyam, in his poem
Rubdiydt, said of the roadhouse what could be attributed to
the coffee house:
And this I know: whether the one True
Kindle to Love, or Wrath-consume me
One Flash of It within the Tavern
Better than in the Temple lost outright.
Folks say that Austin’s panache for the unpredictable is being swallowed whole by Franchise, U.S.A. Perhaps. But if Austin retains any true difference, if it harbors any remaining don’t-tread-on-me instinct from a more ancient time, you’ll find it at Bouldin. The look of weirdness is tiresome fashion, but free-thinking is dangerous always. Like the tavern or the roadhouse, Bouldin caters to the traveler in us all and must per force move as well. For now, ignore this place if you want a confection of just-so danger. Visit and stay if you choose to slip out that temple of someone else’s dreams, but be forewarned: bold vision is the hot, oily gearing of dream.
Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse
1501 South First
Austin, Texas 78704