There Is No X in....

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In 1994, the landscape of Iowa City was forever changed when the Java House opened at 211 ½ East Washington. Its appearance heralded the arrival of the coffee craze in the general Midwest--sure, there were probably Starbucks all over Chicago at that point, but there wasn't one in Iowa City. (In fact, there wasn't a single Starbucks in Iowa City when I left in 2001, but there's one now, I saw with disappointment, though at least it's off the main drag and not nearly as crowded as other, older, cooler places.)

Iowa City's downtown features an area known as the pedestrian mall, the ped mall for short. It runs through four blocks bounded by Washington on the north, Clinton on the west, Burlington on the south, and Linn on the east. Paved with brick, dotted with trees, well-stocked with benches both in the shade and in the sun, equipped with a fountain and a playground, it's a cool place to hang out if there's no one you want to avoid; if there's someone you don't particularly want to encounter--say, for instance, an evil ex named Adam--you are sure to find him there, sitting on a bench in the sun, hitting on some undergrad who can't understand why this 30-something guy with the crazy eyebrows (his eyebrows were his worst feature, looking as they did like small furry rodents nesting on an otherwise attractive face) is putting on this act of intense and obviously fake sincerity. The restaurants, shops and bars (mostly bars) around the ped mall occupy prime retail space, because it gets so much foot traffic.

Prior to the arrival of the Java House, the only coffee house in downtown Iowa City was a place called the Tobacco Bowl, the retail equivalent of an AA meeting or an indoor cigarette break: no need to shiver in a snowstorm between classes or put up with the boozy smell of stale beer while you get your nicotine fix--heavens no! Why not enjoy a nice espresso instead of a beer and stay warm while you're at it? You can either study the cigars in the humidor--such a variety--or sit in front of a big window facing the ped mall, watching everyone who walks by! I admit I see the appeal of all that, I just don't see the appeal of smoking. I would never hang out there, even with friends who smoked, because I hated how I smelled when I left.

But then the Java House opened and the city was transformed. The Java House was pretentious, expensive and perennially overcrowded, which didn't prevent anyone from loving it, me included. It was centrally located--just a dozen yards or so off the north entrance to the ped mall--and had a phone from which you could make free local calls (this in the days before everyone had cell phones). It had reasonably clean bathrooms clear at the back of the establishment, so you could stroll through the whole place, see if there was anyone around you wanted to talk to, use the bathroom, then go on your merry way. Everyone hung out there from time to time, sometimes for hours on end. When we had visitors from out of town, we'd drop them off at the Java House while we went to take or teach classes; we called it "adult daycare."

The Java House also served damn good coffee--still does. Every cup is individually brewed, before your very eyes, after you order it.

There was one thing I always HATED about the Java House: the t-shirts worn by its employees. These shirts had a little slogan written over the heart: "There is no X in espresso."

It drove me nuts because the kind of people who drink espresso are generally the kind of people who know how to spell it. I always felt like responding, "There is no X in ‘pretentious f*ckhead,' either," but I realized that the employees just WORE the t-shirts; they didn't create them.

On my recent visit to Iowa City, the first place I went after checking into my hotel was the Java House (the original Java House, to be specfic--there are now five in town). It had changed in that there was more seating--a good thing--and the graphics on the paper cups were busy and fussy instead of austere and elegant like they used to be, but those goddamn pretentious annoying t-shirts were just the same. Thank god the coffee was too.

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Denver, my home town, has an upscale retail zone that had previously been a bit more comfortable. I hated the transition (we spraypainted "DYS" on construction sites -- die, yuppie scum) but my weakness was coffee. The area is anchored by the Tattered Cover bookstore, independent but very big so it had the same anonymity that makes the chains so much the simulacrum of a bookstore. But they had good magazines and stocked more than just the new titles on psycholgically manipulative display cases. And just up the street from the Tattered Cover was a yuppie coffee shop called Peaberry. All the same objectionable issues -- everybody in black hipness uniform sipping $3 lattes, way overpriced coffee paraphernalia with the logo (why do we pay to be advertisements? Shouldn't they be paying us?), and so on. Except one thing: they had a coffee roaster in the shop. Omigod. Oh. My. God. So much for principles; my heart just melted and I would go in to buy coffee, books, coffee beans, candy, freaking anything just to be enveloped in that scent of roasting beans. It's so insidious: this is how they made us yuppies, just raise the temperature of the water slowly and it feels so nice, so warm, we'll just stay in and not notice the boiling.

I've been to the Tattered Cover, by the way. I simultaneously admired it and found it hard to navigate.

Iowa City also has a great independent boookstore: Prairie Lights, which houses the second Java House, only a block away from the first.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on November 16, 2005 8:40 AM.

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