a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

A coffee shop like none other…

It’s easy to tie this entry in with Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Welsey and Daniel meet in a coffee shop, week after week. But their abode is a mere Starbucks in the middle of New York City, no different than thousands of other cookie-cutter Starbucks across the world. It is based on a real location, though I described it a bit larger than real life in my novel. But still, it’s just a Starbucks.

While I was visiting San Luis Obispo recently I stumbled upon the coolest coffee shop I’ve ever seen anywhere. So cool I had to return with my camera and spray the place. (The staff probably thought I was nuts.) You can click on all the photos here to get larger views.

It’s called Kreuzberg Cafe, and the moment I walked inside my jaw dropped. First of all, it’s big (for a coffee shop), bigger than the houses of many people who hang out there, surely. And it’s as hipster as you can get. It’s sort of divided into sections, and filled with old used furniture—sofas, chairs, tables, lamps, bookcases, a giant conference table, you name it. There are chess boards, backgammon boards, monopoly boards, and books books books. You can read them. You can buy them. You can swap them. Basically, the place is something like a frat house and a Boho hangout that happens to serve coffee, cakes (really good cakes), salads, sandwiches (more on that in a moment), pizza, entrées and drinks (including beer). And of course there’s coffee in about every kind of incarnation you can imagine.

They have events galore: music and authors and all the things you’d expect a beatnik (does anyone still use that word) coffee shop to have. One of the baristas told me the owner spent two years in Berlin in the Kreuzberg and found the area enchanting in that famous counter-culture way. (I’ve been there too. If you’ve never been to Berlin, you should know that despite all its tradition it’s possibly hippier than Haight-Ashbury.) He loved the feeling of freedom and decided to bring it back with him. So he opened Kreuzberg Cafe to reflect four coffee shops he’d loved in Berlin.

Author portraits line the walls, and the place is great for reading, whether you bring your own book or take one of the many they have. Their menu features the Miguel de Cervantes, the Sophocles, the Jane Austin, the Ernest Hemingway, the Franz Kafka and Victor Hugo, the Milan Kundera and Amy Tan. I suggested a new sandwich: the Deborah Eisenberger. Yes, I did.

Towards the back there’s a conference-type room, where one can get away from it all (although when I was there no one was;  the place has a super-social vibe going, and because of the islands of seats it’s easy for large groups to interact. The one night I was there I witnessed large groups of students in one section, which was furnished with easy chairs, couches a coffee table, and floor lamps. They were sprawled out studying on the chairs and couches, on the floor, books piled on the table. If I were back in college I’d be living in this place.

But there’s more, an upstairs. (I’ve never been in a coffee shop before that had an upstairs.) It’s really nothing different, just more seats, more tables, more books. But it’s smaller and more private.


Night is the best time to visit this place. It has an otherworldly sort of feel, or rather as if it were a whole world in microcosm. The outside seems to disappear in the dim. I’ve never been to a coffeehouse that projects a feeling of community as this place does, seemingly without even trying. The lack of commercial trappings (branded T-shirts and coffee mugs and  ornaments and other doodads for sale like you see in Starbucks and Peets) might have something to do with it. It’s like that really cool attic play space of your childhood, writ large and with coffee.

I’ve recently been reading a novel that deals with the (im)permanence of community. (I won’t name the book, because despite its reputation and my own vacillation  on its merits, I’ve finally decided I hate it.) The main character determines community is pretty impossible, despite our attempts to preserve it; he compared it to a bottle on a rough sea, seeking a calm patch. He sees communities and the stability they represent as a Quixotic quest. I don’t know if  I agree (for one thing I don’t feel he defines his idea of community well) but I do think places like the Kreuzberg Cafe are as close to community as I see it that we’re likely to get in modern times. I don’t think they’re so much about shared place, lifestyle or income, race or ethnicity as they are about sharing moments. You can’t share moments on Twitter or Facebook, or even this blog: you may have an experience you will remember because of something you take away from this posting, but it will be the event, and not reading about it on this blog, that you’ll remember. Places like Kreuzberg Cafe allow this. Although it has free wifi, not as many people seemed to be using it as I see at most cafes. The requisite indie music was there, but it wasn’t distressingly loud, and it was easy for people to talk. Although the vibe was basically “hipster,” all walks of life were there.

Like I said, the most amazing coffee shop I’ve ever seen. And you know what else is amazing? Their website lists other coffee shops they think are cool. They are secure enough in their specialness not to feel they must promote themselves and only themselves. If you build it and it’s great they will come. Community. I love it.

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4 responses

  1. That is the coolest place I have ever seen! It’s like Disneyland for people who have their own creativity! Sooooo jealous!

    Like

    December 26, 2011 at 9:33 am

  2. Julia Martinez

    Oh John, you’ve got me wanting to go to San Luis Obispo again! I’ve been there but somehow missed this place, which from what you describe is just amazing! I love reading your blog because you always seem to find the stuff that’s off the beaten trail and you document it beautifully. I’ll be looking for Cafe Kreuzberg the next time in SLO, and meanwhile hurry up and finish your darned book–I want to read it!

    Like

    December 26, 2011 at 10:13 am

  3. dan corteze

    john – i’ve been there and you describe it well. used to live in slo and visited both locations. just moved to san diego two months ago. do you know the owner is now opening a restaurant down the street too? he’s a great guy. went to Berlin as you say and was really changed by the experience. love your blog and hope you and yours have avery happy holiday. peace. –dan

    Like

    December 26, 2011 at 10:19 am

  4. John Grabowski

    Thanks for the feedback everyone. Yes, this is an amazing coffee shop and worth seeking out whenever you’re in the area. Can’t wait to see his restaurant too. Happy holidays everyone!

    Like

    December 26, 2011 at 10:21 am

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