An ode to the not-made-for-Instagram coffee shop

JS Bean Factory, photo by Shelby Lano

JS Bean Factory, photo by Shelby Lano

Stepping into a modern coffee shop is like playing a game of aesthetic bingo.

The walls will be decorated with white tile arranged in geometric shapes. The floor is poured concrete, dark wood, or more tile. Regardless of its composition, it will be polished to a shine, illuminated by natural light.

Symmetry is the guiding principle: Tables are uniform and small, with just enough room for two people to work via laptops. Color? Not here, save for accents of neon, copper, or rose gold. There is neither dust nor an object out of place.

Every surface awaits your hashtags.

A generation ago, in the so-called second-wave coffee shops of the 1990s, things looked and felt different. As someone who did homework in coffee shops back then, and does work-work in them now, I appreciate the merits of both. (The Twin Cities’ croissant game is ridiculously strong at present.) But I love that a few coffee shops here still maintain the ’90s aesthetic in all its glory. These spaces allow us to time travel whenever we’re in the mood.

At JS Bean Factory in St. Paul (1518 Randolph Ave.), the floor is half red-and-black tile, half hardwood. It looks as if it were stained and polished once, years ago, but is now scuffed in patterns extending from the front door. One wall is covered in corrugated aluminum; others are painted primary yellow and red. Long blackboards list coffee drinks written by a human hand wielding actual chalk, and the beans (roasted on site) are listed on white dry-erase boards. Baked goods come from PJ Murphy’s, a few blocks down the street: doughnuts and muffins and cookies and scones, piled together in a single case.

There’s a map of the world and photos of customers holding up J&S bags in front of global landmarks. The feeling is one of community, and it extends to the items for sale near the register, like locally made earrings, soap, painted postcards, acoustic guitar CDs. It’s as if the neighborhood came together and assembled a sort of bazaar. Did I mention there’s a collection of aromatherapy sprays?

Cahoots Coffee Bar, photo by Shelby Lano

Cahoots Coffee Bar, photo by Shelby Lano

On a recent visit, the small room was packed, and though no music was playing, the mood was lively, full. As at a lot of second-wave coffee shops, people were clearly meeting up with their Friends. I spotted only a handful of laptops.

At Cahoots, also in St. Paul (1562 Selby Ave.), one wall displays vintage plates, wooden figurines, and framed art, much of it for sale. A giant, wireless printer and a sign for it, both faded by the sun, sit next to the baked goods case, where fudge brownies sit in their own plastic deli containers. There’s a tall cooler for soft drinks, and its internal fan adds a layer of white noise to the atmosphere. Next to it is a bookcase of used paperbacks and hardcovers to either peruse or purchase. Above your head hangs a pressed tin ceiling the color of marinara.

The furniture could have been chosen at random—and it very well may have been—with laminate-topped tables and chairs taken directly from a late-’80s conference room. On Sundays, many are occupied by students studying, sharing handwritten notes, and offering each other headphones to check out some music. The room feels Bohemian and maybe a little dusty, but the vibe is comfortable and easygoing, partly because Cahoots has been around for decades. It opened in 1994, a quarter-century ago, and a lifetime before condos, anonymous and monolithic, began to invade the neighborhood.

I thought about this during a recent visit to Blue Moon Coffee Cafe—I should say both recent and final, as Blue Moon closed at the end of December after a nearly 25-year run on on East Lake Street.

But to take a step back and remember Blue Moon as it was: One section of the room felt exactly like a ’90s apartment: stuffed thrift-store chairs, coffee table, well-worn couch. Walls were painted pale yellow, the ceiling a bleached purple. A string of Christmas lights and ornaments in a cluster of branches that sat atop a little bar facing the espresso machine and a series of small fridges. (The bar was made out of glass block, a decorative flourish from the decade before even the ’90s.) Some of the tables (again, laminate-topped) were uneven, propped up by folded coasters. The hardwood floor had seen dozens of winters’ boots clomp into the room.

JS Bean Factory, photo by Shelby Lano

JS Bean Factory, photo by Shelby Lano

As with JS and Cahoots, people plugged their devices into power strips—the room was constructed in an era before we all had one, two, or three lithium-ion batteries on us at all times. At Blue Moon, too, locally painted postcards were for sale. A stack of board games overwhelmed a bookcase, each box’s cardboard peeling and raw in places, evidence that they had been played many times over the years.

At each of these spots, it struck me why second-wave, ’90s-style coffee shops are so comfortable, even if there are fewer and fewer of them all the time: because a human touch is in every choice. The furniture, usually secondhand, is a mishmash of found objects. The paint job was chosen to suit the taste of the people who work there. Each handwritten sign was scrawled by someone who’s probably pulling your espresso shot right now.

These spaces have character and a specificity to them, and because of that, you feel like you’re in the home of a friend or a family member. You’re not necessarily here to work, you’re here to socialize, to get caught up, to unplug, to maybe read a book.

When you order coffee, it will be decanted from a large aluminum urn (and it will, in all likelihood, be bitter from over-roasted beans). The impression is that someone just invited you into their home, brewed a pot, and are happy to pour you some. It will be served in Fiestaware or thrift-store mugs and they’ll pass it to you as if you’re in their kitchen.

You might take your coffee back to the table and ask your friend about their day. A few others might join you. Maybe you’ll grab a copy of Balderdash from the pile of board games and you’ll play a few rounds. You should: You’re all friends here.