When I heard there was a coffee shop opening in Cooper-Young back in 1992, I was excited but skeptical. I had heard talk from others about their pursuit of opening a coffee shop that didn’t come to anything. And when I drove down Young Avenue to check things out, it didn’t look like much was going on.
Back then, I was hosting poetry readings once a month on Sunday evening at Deliberate Literate Bookstore, which resided next to Cafe Society on Belvedere, and I knew it was time to relocate the readings. Originally, Tom Diggs, who worked at Deliberate Literate, (now respected playwright) hosted the poetry readings as way to get people in to buy coffee and sell books. One day I asked him if I could help out. His response, “Help me, girl, you can have it!”
Young and overly enthusiastic, you know, the way young people can be, my excitement was contagious and the poetry reading grew in no time. The number of attendees was a bit overwhelming to the bookstore owner, but I think it was the sex poetry my friend Kendra read while rocking herself back and forth in a chair that put him on edge. When he said we needed to take a break for the upcoming holidays, I knew the way he said “break” meant indefinitely.
I had no idea where I was going to find a suitable place to host the poetry readings. The Babylon Cafe was on its way to closing or maybe had even closed by then. There simply weren’t any coffeehouses in Memphis at the time not even a Starbucks. I didn’t think I could get Midtowners to drive all the way to Germantown to read at The Coffee House. Besides, I was just discovering Midtown, and it seemed like the place to be.
Working at the hippest clothing store in town, U.S. Male, I kept hearing buzz about this Java Cabana Gallery. Weeks later, I drove back to Cooper Young and tried again. This time I noticed a vintage clothing store, Vintage Mania, across the street. Things were beginning to look promising.
It was November of 1992 when I met Tommy Foster and first step foot in the Java Cabana. The coffee shop had orange sponged walls, 1950’s furniture for sale, dark Cuban coffee and unfortunately, cigarette smoke permeating the room. I asked Foster if I could host the poetry readings at his place. He said yes to the readings but no to Sunday, so the reading was moved to Thursday night. With the new venue, and maybe the ability to smoke cigarettes, what started as a monthly event became a weekly event. Foster called me up one night and said, “You’ve got to get down here. I’ve got a line out the door.” Open mic night exploded.
The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Flyer wrote stories. Channel 5 sent out a news crew. The reading kept growing. There was no Facebook or Twitter or blogs to get the word out. There was word in print and word of mouth which spread like a wild fire. People had something to say, but what made it magical was that they were getting heard. They were inspiring each other. College students, business professionals, artists, grungy kids, everyone crowded in the room together and shared their poem, their short story, their improvisation.
Poetry turned into spoken word. Spoken word turned into poetry slams. Poetry slams turned into singing songs. And poetry found its way back again. I crossed paths with exceptional singers, writers and poets at those readings, including some who have made a career out of their talents since then, but what I am most grateful for are the friendships I have maintained with many of the people I met during that time.
Open mic night has changed hands with different hosts, and the ever-changing crowd continues to impress me, but one thing hasn’t changed. People of all ages still have something to say. Sometimes what they say is lyrical or poetic, and sometimes it seems like nonsense. What is magical about it though is that something really good is happening in your neighborhood every Thursday night from 8-10 p.m.; people of all walks of life crowd together in one little room to share their voice, and they are getting heard. Whether we realize it or not, sometimes that’s all we need, someone to bear witness.
Open mic night is every Thursday night from 8-10 p.m. with host Gabriel Valdez. All are welcome.
Mary A. Burns is the owner of Java Cabana in Cooper-Young.