creative catalysts: once upon a time there was a perfect coffeehouse (and other fables)

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(Inside The Java House on Washington St. in Iowa City, Iowa).

On an otherwise ordinary street in Iowa City, the perfect coffeehouse sits tucked between a bar and a discount clothing store. It is perpetually dim, offering an ambience reminiscent of the space between the early hours of the morning and the first shock of sunlight. Then there are those lush Latinate words that taste of fine art and sultry outdoor cafes: espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, dopio, americano. Yes, in the perfect coffeehouse tongues lavish in oratory complexity, in their ability to reaffirm their own sophistication. The perfect coffeehouse is teaming with tables and comfortable chairs, at times mismatched, scuffed and broken, at times curated, clean and poised. These tables and chairs do a remarkable job of always appearing full but not overwhelmed, which suggests the success and validity of the perfect coffeehouse. Noses are nurtured by various aromas- the smooth kiss of chocolate, the rich rot of wine, the nuttiness, the sting of acid- elicited by brews hailing from distant lands and fields in Colombia, Antigua, Ethiopia, Yemen. All of the ceramic cups are white and all of the saucers are white and it is all so chic and simple in the perfect coffeehouse. It has free Wi-Fi. It boasts a plethora of house-baked croissants, muffins and scones.

There are frazzled novelists with papers sprawled haphazardly. There are sorority girls swirling their silly straws in their saccharine drinks. An elderly gentleman is highlighting the New York Times and petting his dog beneath the table. A barista with an octopus tattoo on her forearm is frothing milk. Someone, maybe God, calls my name. My “Giant of the Earth” pour- over coffee is obsidian and gorgeous. I submerge myself in an overstuffed chair pocked with gaping holes of various sizes. I swear my allegiance to the perfect coffeehouse and sip with gusto, scorching my tongue.

Four years later, I have successfully navigated my way through Iowa City’s 45 other registered coffeehouses, most of which were lusterless in comparison to the paradigm of “the perfect coffeehouse.” I am a bonafied caffeine-queen. I wield my French Press like a scepter and I wear my clandestine affair with the latte like a crown. My various orders are carved into my brain: Nutty Caramel Latte with almond milk and an extra shot of espresso for when my mantra is “treat yo’self,” a pour-over coffee when I’ve got a story twitching in my fingertips, a cappuccino for conversation and never, under any circumstance, an artisanal tea.

It’s a Saturday in March. I’ve got lines and characters and plots waltzing from right to left in my brain. I email my fiction professor a fervent request that he meet me later to discuss my story. I make a beeline for the perfect coffeehouse. The sky is grey with spring cold and as my boots scuff across the cobbled streets of Iowa City, I imagine myself a female Ben Franklin, coat billowing, spectacles slipping, rushing off to a Club of Honest Whigs meeting at the London Coffeehouse. The soft bounce of my laptop against my back draws me out of my reverie.

At 7:04 a.m. the perfect coffeehouse still rubbing the sleep from its eyes. The barista’s smile is soft as she maneuvers around the pour-over coffee bar to pour steaming water over the fresh grounds. I watch the water sieve through the filter and into the perfect coffeehouse’s iconic cups. As the drops accumulate, I ponder (as I am prone to d0) the implications of my desire for this particular space and for this particular drink in the context of my creativity.

At this point, it is pertinent that I disclose that the perfect coffeehouse (Iowa City’s beloved Java House) is the brainchild of Tara Cronbaugh, a former University of Iowa student, who discovered her passion for coffeehouse ambience while visiting her brother at the University of California Berkeley in 1990. Tara was fascinated by the unique combination of “social and relaxing” vibes that were exuded by the locally owned coffee establishments they visited. Most importantly, she unearthed a key tenant of the coffeehouse success algorithm: it wasn’t about the coffee served but rather the entire experience that the coffeehouse could provide.

You see, it wasn’t coffee (although it is delectable in every sense of the word) that garnered my loyalty to the perfect coffeehouse. Out of Iowa City’s 45 other coffeehouses (41% of which belong to corporations including Starbucks, Caribou Coffee and Dunkin Donuts), it was the story that Tara crafted and told me that I fell in love with. The perfect coffeehouse became an emblem of the narrative that I constructed for myself: it was well-loved and slightly weathered like the Velveteen Rabbit, it was occupied chiefly by hipsters and other messy minds and my very presence in it, solidified my membership in the society of intelligent, stylish and undoubtedly witty coffee-aficionados. The perfect coffeehouse was a place where I could linger, a place where I could whip out my scribble-marred, tattered Moleskine with pride.

No! Precious beads of pour-over coffee slide over the sides of the cup in nearly translucent, pale brown rivulets. I snatch the cup deftly up, ignoring the burn of hot liquid against my bare hands. The barista offers me a napkin. I decline and rush off to my favorite alcove near the window. I look out as my coffee breathes; the small city is beginning to stir and stretch last night’s stiffness from its sinews. Patrons are beginning to harken to the perfect coffeehouse; its siren song calls their decaffeinated brains and their aesthetic-loving hearts. The door of perfect coffeehouse functions like the hands of a clock: the mornings fly swiftly by as the rush quickens, the afternoons lounge about in one long, quiet dwindle and the evenings are punctuated by the soothing entrance of a twilight breeze. I wish I could set my watch to it.

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(a rare sighting of my one true love: the infamous, sensual and delightful Nutty Caramel Latte.)

This is the moment my four semesters of Italian prepared me for. The perfect coffeehouse encourages la dolce far niente or the sweetness of doing nothing, of time devoted to interest and rumination rather than obligation. Even its name, “The Java House,” implies that there is no need for hustled orders or quickly crafted drinks. Although you can certainly order your coffee to go, there is something so decadent about immersing yourself in the perfect coffeehouse’s humming and carefully crafted atmosphere. As the gold light of morning pouring through its rectangular windows, my coffee has finally achieved drinkable status; its temperature falls somewhere between scalding and warm. My olfactory organs inhale the darkness of the roast. I open my laptop and begin to unfurl my tangled ball of ideas.

If I were to draw up an algorithm of Tara Cronbaugh ‘s The Java House it would be divided into three equal parts and their caffeinated brews wouldn’t factor in. What it does so damnably well, what makes it worthy of the moniker “the perfect coffeehouse” is its trifecta of experience: it offers a creative space, it tells a good story and it provides customers with the chance to do nothing, should they so choose to indugle. Which is why many of the Iowa City’s residents, especially its large student and writer population, prefer this local shop to the more widely known java joints such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, the latter of which sports multiple locations within the city limits.

When questioned about the difference between large coffee chains and the perfect coffeehouse, a fellow coffee-enthusiast stated, “When I’m in a hurry, Starbucks is my jam but when I want to take my time, accomplish something or impress a girl, I always come here [Java House] because it’s got personality.” He lifted his thick brown brows at me and leaned in as a gesture of confidence, “Well, and the barista’s actually give a shit about what they make here.”

With that, he toasted his macchiato towards me. I raised my Nutty Caramel Latte in solidarity, its tessellated milk foam dancing. Yes, the perfect coffeehouse is detailed and careful, presenting each cup o’joe as if it were a piece of art. We are simultaneously soothing our coffee-addled brains and dropping clues about our world-view. We are paying homage to the scholars of the Age of Enlightenment, gatherings to discuss our interests and passions over cups of coffee. The perfect coffeehouse says something about who we are. We are social, intellectual and we can properly pronounce “espresso.” As patrons, we tell its story to others out of love and admiration for its authenticity, and it in turn, reinforces the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves.

There are over 500 art galleries in New York City. There are 83 museums across the five boroughs. Universities with storied creative programs such as Columbia, The New School, The Juilliard School and NYU. People move to New York City for the story. They move to New York City because that is just what creative people do, because that is just where creative people are. With all of its culture and contrasts, it promises adventure and romance and conflict and explosions of creativity. It lets us “lie” to ourselves in just the same way that the perfect coffeehouse does: we consume their stories and then adopt them as compliments to our own narratives.

New York City boats over 1,700 coffeehouses. Of that number, 57% are single-location or small chain spots. The remaining 43% are made up of the popular chain coffee retailers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. In contrast, Iowa City is home to only 45 coffeehouses. Of that number, 75.5% are single location or small chain spots, which leaves less than 25% to large coffee retailers.

In the January/ February issue of Communication Arts (Typography 6), Monica Kass Rogers’ article “A Beautiful Mess” excavates the ever-changing realm of food photography. In accordance with today’s “looser, messier, more idiosyncratic” food styling, she writes that “ [food] is not as limited by the boundaries of the plate so that they may tell bigger food stories: where it’s from, what it is, why it matters. Food has become the window into lifestyle stories.”

I vehemently agree with Monica’s assessment. There are no small stories in this world. Even within the coffeehouse industry. Sure, the large corporate coffee conglomerates have a grip on a vast majority of the population but if you take the perfect coffeehouse’s story as a model, there is a vital message: you don’t have to convince everyone that your story is important, you only have to convince those who share your worldview that your story is authentic. Each cup, each visit, each exchange with a knowledgeable barista functions as one brushstroke on the larger canvas of the story. Consequently, the experience of the perfect coffeehouse is allowed to transcend the boundaries of consumerism and become a part of the consumer’s narrative about their chosen lifestyle.

As the United States only UNESCO City of Literature and the birthplace of the illustrious, historical and extremely exclusive MFA program The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Iowa City is something of a Midwest bohemia. With its cobbled streets, its boutique businesses, its vintage sport culture, its sweater-clad trees and local restaurants, it tells the same myth that the perfect coffeehouse does. As with the most powerful tales of our age, the medium becomes the message. The perfect coffeehouse tells me a story of a girl with a story twitching in her fingertips, waiting to be unleashed. It’s a story I can imagine and plot and fill with characters and mess up and revise. It’s stronger than the notes of my freshly-poured French roast. It warms the palms of my hands. My fiction professor scurries through the door. His red scarf is obscuring his mouth. His blue eyes stop on an unoccupied barista.

“Story can wait,” he mumbles in lieu of a greeting, “Coffee first.”

So as your sip your morning brew and savor your Tuesday, please consider this week’s (whit)ticisms:

  1. The Internet is a wonderful realm that allows us to access material and inspiration from sources produced hundreds of years ago. This enables an artist to create work that has a past but feels absolutely present. Steal like an artist this week and write a riff on a classic story (something that relies on money, a miracle, ego, fun, safety, pleasure, belonging ect.).
  2. Treat yo’self. Devour that giant cinnamon roll. Chug that spiked milkshake. No seriously, do it. Trust me, I’m three quarters away from my second Hurts donut as I write this.
  3. Be aware of the fact that every choice, every word and every action constructs your personal narrative. The average human lifespan is 71 years. Due to the brevity of existence, there are no small moments. Remember Monet’s dappled brushstrokes? He applied paint in small strokes that ultimately built up into broad fields of color. It was a laborious process but look at the beauty that came from it.
  4. Watch this short video about the “Vagabond Barista” and how he fused his personal journey with coffee in order to tell and share an authentic narrative to others:

may your love & your coffee be strong,

– whit