Coffee houses in the 1950s and ’60s didn’t resemble the ones that exist today. People’s faces weren’t hidden behind laptops and you probably couldn’t order a $5 latte. Artists, writers and free-thinkers of the “beat generation” (a term coined by Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road) could get a robust cup of dark coffee and hang out for hours watching people, writing and being creative. Beat coffee houses also served as gathering places where innovative thinkers and artists would meet similar individuals.
Though beat coffee houses like San Francisco’s Cafe Trieste and Greenwich Village’s Cafe Bizarre still exist today, many across the country have closed their doors, including Boulder’s Penny Lane, which closed in 2005, and Espresso Roma, which shut down Oct. 29. At Espresso Roma, “Romans” would gather at the cafe, buy a cup of coffee for a dollar and hang out for as long as they wanted.
But Roma’s closing might be part of a larger trend in coffee consumption in the U.S. Merry White, a food anthropology professor at Boston University and the author of Coffee Life In Japan, says that coffee shops in the U.S. have greatly changed since the ’50s and ’60s, and beat coffee shops across the country are losing popularity to artisan coffee shops and caffeine-fueled work spots. In a video called “The History of Coffee Culture in America,” produced by Boston University, White talks about the three waves of coffee culture in America, the first being instant coffee, the second being the rise of coffee shop chains like Starbucks and the third being the rise of independent coffee shops that feature craft coffee.
“There’s this new wave of coffee shops where it’s really about the coffee, to the extent that you might have to wait 20 minutes for your cup to be hand-poured,” White tells Boulder Weekly. “Those coffee shops may or may not care if you hang out all day. ... Although the beat coffee shops like the ones in the ’50s and ’60s are really about the conversation, and also about being identified by the type of person that goes to those sort of places.”
Former Espresso Roma barista Emily Owens says that the defunct coffee shop’s unique atmosphere and aesthetic cannot be found anywhere else in Boulder, and that coffee culture in Boulder has shifted from community-based gathering spaces to rows of isolated laptop users.
“Most coffee shops in Boulder have this very clean, very sterile feeling,” Owens says. “They totally lack personality and don’t have nearly the community vibe that a place like Roma offered, where you could go at any time of the day and run into someone you knew.”
Tom Peters, who owns the beat book shop on Pearl Street and organizes a weekly open poetry reading at The Laughing Goat, says that Espresso Roma was a place where people from different walks of life could connect.
“It was always a gathering for young people that weren’t even in college,” Peters says. “Almost the whole time it’s been there, it had a real strong presence of high school kids interacting with older people in a non-alcoholic environment.”
Owens, who now works at Pekoe Sip House in North Boulder, says that in her experience people don’t gather anywhere else like they did at Espresso Roma.
“There’s nowhere in Boulder where you can have rich people, homeless people, CU kids, transfer students and natives getting along in a cultural stew,” Owens says. “The rest of Boulder has its nice places and its not-so-nice-places. It’s very cut-and-dried, whereas at a Bohemian place like Roma, you could have a gentleman who’s been on the streets for 10 years talking to a guy who has a nuclear 2.5 family and they are having great time.”
After living in Boulder for 18 years and frequenting coffee shops like Trident and Penny Lane since she was 7 years old, Owens says that the shift in Boulder’s coffee shop culture reflects a change in Boulder’s alternative culture in general.
“What’s happened is more of a Boulder thing, where this sort of newage hippie, people kind of looking like wild fairies, yoga and kombucha is sort of Boulder’s bohemia now,” Owens says. “That’s what being alternative in Boulder is these days, versus how it used to be at places like Penny Lane and Roma, where native Boulderites made art and talked to people they have known for 15 years.”
Though Espresso Roma’s closing came as a tragedy to much of Boulder’s creative community, others see it as an opportunity to highlight Boulder’s more underground arts scene. The Boulder Poetry Tribe is a self-proclaimed “crew of creative cats” that organizes poetry events around town. Boulder Poetry Tribe member and local poet Troy Suben says that real “bohemia” still strongly exists in Boulder despite Espresso Roma’s closing.
“If anything, the close redirects people’s attention to what’s already here,” Suben says. “It’s an opportunity to look at other venues and other people involved. The good news is there’s a lot of venues and a lot of accessible people who run them or volunteer.”
Suben adds that there are events for poets and poetry fans several nights of the week in Boulder. The Laughing Goat Coffee House on Pearl Street hosts a weekly open poetry reading at 8 p.m. on Monday, Innisfree Poetry Bookstore on the Hill hosts a weekly open poetry night at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, 303 Vodka in East Boulder hosts a poetry night at 7:30 p.m. every Wednesday, and all three of these venues will host monthly featured poets. Once a month at midnight on the night of a full moon, the Boulder Poetry Tribe and others gather in the alley behind the Boulder Cafe on 13th and Pearl Street for an open poetry reading. According to Suben, the police never bother them, and their only competition comes from hecklers coming from the bars, who the Boulder Poetry Tribe proudly “out-heckle.”
Suben says that no matter what businesses open or close, creative people in Boulder will always find a place to gather and share their work.
“The businesses and industries are going to close,” Suben says. “But the people are on fire with this stuff. ... Bohemia didn’t go anywhere.”