By Mary Burns
Early on when I was so young, I had a dream of opening a coffee shop.
I wanted to ‘hold space’ where people of all walks of life could cross paths, supporting artists, musicians, potters and writers. That was my vision, and I was going to name it “Small Hands Cafe,” inspired by the last line of an E.E. Cummings poem, “nobody, not even the rain has such small hands.” Once you come to know the poem, you come to understand its meaning and the aspirations I hoped to achieve.
I thought I would be forty years old living in the mountains, teaching poetry and then I’d open up my coffeehouse. I had a friend tell me back then that my vision was a great idea, but how about getting a job as a barista first, for some ‘practical’ experience. Their advice made sense, so that’s what I did. I got a job as a barista . . . and my dream, well it didn’t happen the way I thought it would.
In 1998, young and enthusiastic, I bought Java Cabana from Tommy Foster after working behind the counter several years earlier and hosting and running open mic night. Tommy had established a quirky foundation from the beginning with 1950s dinette tables, the First Church of Elvis Impersonator Shrine, and a Viva Wedding Chapel in the back, where he married hundreds of couples. He put Cooper-Young on the map, as far as I and many of his fans are concerned. His creativity was insatiable and inspiring and right in step with what most people call the Second Wave of Coffee, which put a focus on speciality coffee drinks, such as mochas, vanilla lattes, any flavor/coffee concoction you desire.
But the funny thing about it was that Tommy hadn’t intended for it to be a coffee shop. It was meant to be a gallery. The official business name was Java Cabana Gallery. Overnight, with a Mr. Coffeemaker and a tiny Krups espresso maker, it became a coffee shop.
When I took over Java Cabana, the first thing I did was establish a non-smoking environment. Yes, people actually smoked in cafes until the late 1990s. I painted the cafe blue, despite so much resistance from others about how it would make the room smaller, and I eventually gave the shrine back to Tommy because I wanted the light to pour in. Later he condensed the shrine into a smaller version that now resides at Goner Records. Tommy once commented about how I made the cafe ‘girly,’ but I like to think what he meant was I gave it a more feminine touch. Since that time it’s been blessed by Tibetan monks, has become home to Imperial Bowling lane floors, and has been ‘Auntie Mamed’ more times than I can count. In other words, it has taken on a life of its own.
I’ve watched Java Cabana and my neighborhood grow over the last twenty years. It’s been incredible to see businesses build up around it, such as Goner Records, Halford Loudspeakers, Two Rivers Bookstore, Burke’s Bookstore, Tsunami, Mulan, Urban Outfitters, Stone Soup, to name a few, as well as all the strengthening and building of community that exists because of First Congregational Church and their leadership, as well as groups like MAGY, CYCA and CYBA and The Lamplighter. I feel grateful to be a part of Cooper Young.
I like to think of the cafe as what I call a ‘happy accident.’ It’s been touched by so many lives, and it has touched so many lives—from the people who work there to writers to musicians to travelers to loyal locals to Tibetan monks to teenagers to elderly to daydreamers to CEOs. People often tell me it feels like home or being in someone’s house. And it makes me smile to say this: it is a magical place, where seeds are planted, where people come in from the outside world for a reprieve, and it’s also a place where I still like to dream. <>
This essay, written by the late Mary Burns, was published in the (print version) May Bicentennial Issue of StoryBoard Memphis, in the Style section pages 33 and 34. Mary passed away October 4, 2019. Read our tribute here.