I am one of the proprietors of a particular kind of establishment of which there used to be many flourishing examples not only in New York, but all over the Western World.  They grew up as shrines dedicated to the worship of a little berry.  From this little berry a drink was made.  And with the consumption of this drink all kinds of interesting things began to happen. 

            But let us begin with a little history.

         The coffee tree is indigenous to Ethiopia.  It may also be native to that part of the world which in a gentler time used to be called Arabia.  Certainly Arabs were cultivating the coffee plant as early as 600 A.D.  It was used initially in paste form as a food and in particular a medicine.  Indeed, the first mention of it in literature is by the Arab physician Rhazes in about the year 900.  By the thirteenth century, however, Arabs had discovered that a delicious drink could be made from the roasted beans of this plant and in the wake of this discovery coffee became a lucrative article of trade.  Over the next few centuries it began to infiltrate the West.  It was introduced into Turkey in the middle of the sixteenth century, into Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth, and from there it spread rapidly all over Europe.

            Houses for the consumption of coffee opened in Vienna in the first half of the seventeenth century.  In 1650 an enterprising Jew known to history only as Jacob (Cromwell had just let the Jews back into England) opened the first English coffeehouse, in Oxford.  Two years later, another enterprising immigrant, Pasqua Rosée, opened the first coffeehouse in London, harking back to its medicinal properties, and claiming in a handbill that coffee "quickens the spirits, and makes the heart lightsome . . . is good against sore eyes . . . excellent to prevent and cure the dropsy, gout, and scurvy," and that, by way of reassurance, it was "neither laxative nor restringent." 

            By the beginning of the eighteenth century the London coffeehouse had become a full-blown institution and all hint of coffee's medicinal origins had fallen by the wayside.  It was the great leveler.  For a penny, men (not, however, women) of all parties and stations could gain entrance, glean the latest news, and drown themselves in a brew far headier than alcohol: political discussion.  As Matthew Green wrote in The Spleen in 1737:

                        Or to some coffeehouse I stray               
For news, the manna of a day,
And from the hipp'd discourses gather
That politics go by the weather

Drawn by the dissemination of news and the discussion of politics, people (sorry, men) were dropping in to their favorite coffeehouse five or six times a day, using it as a kind of office.  It quickly became clear that business of a more formal kind could be effectively carried out in this informal setting.  Trading companies and stockbrokers began to establish their headquarters in certain coffeehouses.  Some developed long associations with a particular establishment.  Few, however, can rival the shipping insurer, Lloyd's of London, which began its life in (and took its name from) Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse on Tower Street, moved with it (and retained its name) when it moved to Lombard Street, and continued to operate its ever-expanding worldwide business from Lloyd's for almost a century.  Even when it opened its own building in the nineteenth century, having become a synonym for rock-solid insurance of every kind, it continued to conduct its operations under the name of a long-dead coffeehouse proprietor.

            Another enticing aroma emanating from these egalitarian watering holes was cultural, in particular literary.  At William Unwin's (known as Will's) on Russell Street, for example, the humblest carter, if he had a mind to, could hear the great John Dryden hold forth, almost single-handedly reshaping, by example and critique, the language of Donne and the Metaphysical poets into that elegant and measured tread which came to be called Augustan and which found its greatest flowering in the infant prodigy, Alexander Pope.  And across the street, at Button's, a generation later, if that carter were now literate, he could drop a manuscript into the mouth of the lion's head which Joseph Addison, the great essayist, had attached to the west wall to solicit submissions, and wait to hear (in person) whether it might be accepted for Addison's burgeoning magazine, The Spectator.  Addison's great rival and collaborator, Richard Steele, the other pre-eminent essayist and editor of the early eighteenth century, had correspondents in a multitude of coffeehouses and captured perfectly the marriage of the coffeehouse and culture in the first issue of his magazine, The Tatler (April 12, 1709), announcing in a preamble that he intended to include "Accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment . . . under the article of White's Chocolate-House; poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house . . .  foreign and domestic news . . . from Saint James's Coffee-house," and so on. 

            The purpose and character of the coffeehouse was now defined.  The drinking of coffee was of course a mere pretext.  The coffeehouse had become and was to remain for almost two hundred years a meeting house, club, office, trading center, gossip central, with political and philosophical overtones and a distinctly literary air.  It was, at least in England, the great democratic institution, in contrast for example to taverns, alehouses, and so-called public houses.  To this day public houses (pubs) retain a hierarchical class distinction between the public bar and the saloon bar (which is more salubrious, not to mention expensive).  No such distinction was ever drawn in coffeehouses.  Indeed a common code of behavior contained in a set of Rules and Orders was posted in each coffeehouse.  Of its thirty lines, the first six dealt with the equality of all customers, a startling and significant notion in a society which, ten years after Jacob opened his coffeehouse in Oxford, had seen the Restoration of the monarchy.

            The democratic coffeehouse had its heyday, at least in England, in the eighteenth century.  It began to fail, however, in the nineteenth, and not just for reasons of longevity.  Its demise may have been inevitable (although pubs survived), but it was hastened by a conglomeration of social changes: the advent of home mail delivery, which reduced the need for a meeting-place; the appearance of  daily newspapers, which reduced the need for direct reports of daily news; and the emergence of men's clubs, which afforded men of a certain class a much more comfortable (and in some cases, permanent) home away from home. 

            The democratic coffeehouse gave way by the end of the century to much grander incarnations called Cafés, where coffee and alcohol (and the sexes) mixed freely.  One thinks of the Café Royal where Oscar Wilde hung out in fin-de-siècle London.  One thinks of the great cafés of Berlin in the early twentieth century, like the Kranzler and the Kempinski, or the glorious cafés of Paris between the wars.  But through war and peace, privation and reconstruction, glut and depression, the café, whatever its size, never lost its intimate relationship with art, philosophy, and politics.  At Café Central in Vienna, Lenin held forth on the eve of the Russian Revolution--actually, since he was in almost permanent peripatetic exile, almost every café in Europe claims him.  In Prague, Franz Kafka, hardly the most sociable of men, confessed to Max Brod that he had always wanted to open a café--fortunately or unfortunately, he never did.  And in Paris, at the cafés which re-emerged after the Second World War, like the Deux Magots and the Café Flore, Sartre and de Beauvoir and Camus and Aron could be found formulating and reformulating the postwar philosophical and artistic Zeitgeist over their vin ordinaire.

            The coffeehouse proper, however, re-emerged in America, and nowhere more conspicuously and to greater historical and social effect than for a brief and intense period in Greenwich Village, whose character it virtually defined. 

            There were all kinds of precursors.  At Polly's on MacDougal Street before the First World War John Reed and Max Eastman and Theodore Dreiser and a pair of Sinclairs--Upton and Lewis--were digesting the political, artistic, and psychological news from Europe and translating them into a distinctly American idiom.  At the Café Royal, which opened in 1920 on Second Avenue, the heartland of Yiddish theatre, a mad frenzy of actors, writers, agents, and producers created the Yiddish Sardi's, as it came to be known, about as far away in style and temperament from the Café Royal of Oscar Wilde as it was possible to get.  At Café Society, in the basement of One Sheridan Square, Barney Josephson presented an unknown black singer named Billie Holiday as his opening act in 1938, breaking forever the racial barriers that permeated every club below Harlem. 

            Writers.  Actors.  Musicians.  A certain social and political consciousness.  The mix was very familiar.  All that was missing was a scene.

            That scene materialized in the fifties, just after the demise of Café Society and Barney Josephson's departure for 8th Street.  Suddenly, almost overnight, the coffeehouse proper re-appeared. On MacDougal Street and Bleecker, at the Reggio, the Figaro, the Rienzi, the Gaslight, in the fifties and early sixties, coffee suddenly came flavored with the poetry of the Beats, the music of a burgeoning horde of folksingers, and the wild freewheeling experiments of visual artists and performers whose idiosyncratic congress gave birth to happenings.

            I arrived in New York from London in the sixties at the tail end of this particular comet, supposedly to write about avant-garde American theatre.  Two cafés were of particular interest to me, although I arrived too late for one and just after the other had transmogrified itself into something at once larger and more freewheeling.  At their respective headquarters--Caffe Cino in the West Village and Café La Mama in the East--Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart had between them given birth to Off Off Broadway, the most vital theatrical movement in postwar America, if not the world.  However, when I got off the boat in 1967, I was still wedded to the notion that theatre was about plays and could be understood by reading texts, and I had no idea that avant-garde American theater was about to explode into a myriad of forms and directions.
            We have almost reached the present moment.

            Ellen Stewart still rings her bell when she's in town, welcoming audiences to La Mama, but she no longer runs a café: she is the presiding genius of La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, still a worldwide force for good in the theatre but a world away from the café where all of that began.  Joe Cino had a much shorter inning, committing suicide in a particularly violent and grisly way as success and drugs and homosexuality and the ever-vigilant Feds and NYPD and tax and obscenity charges overwhelmed him. 

            And after a much briefer heyday than the glory days of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London, one by one, and then in droves, other cafés and coffeehouses, a staple of New York life, fell by the wayside, because rents became too high, because the desire to congregate was eclipsed by the desire to watch television, because the excitement of what happened in certain cafés was institutionalized and co-opted by high-stakes cabarets and concerts and galleries and theatres.

            What follows is the story of one which survived: the Cornelia Street Café, which three of us started in 1977, coincidentally right next door to where the Cino of blessed memory, just ten years before, had gone down in flames.