An ode to the coffeehouse crawl

Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 1:21pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I had the closest thing to a spiritual awakening when I first climbed up the olive steps leading to South Fourth Avenue’s most charming hideaway — a place with tingling espresso aromas, walls adorned with matcha-colored greenery and a heavenly soundtrack of scholarly chatter and prickly indie tunes: Literati Coffee. It was my first semester of college, and per a self-made tradition, I had set aside every Wednesday afternoon before my Women’s Studies lecture to explore the abundance of coffee shops Ann Arbor had to offer. 

Every Wednesday, one shop at a time. This week’s pick was a fancy-sounding place called Literati Coffee, tucked just above its sister storefront, Literati Bookstore.

I reached the top of the bookstore’s worn steps, only to turn the corner and discover a strikingly peaceful corner of campus I never even knew existed. The experience felt transcendent: I had crossed the threshold from a university town buzzing in the excitement of changing fall colors and an anticipated football season to the serene nirvana found just above Literati Bookstore. And so, I entered, perhaps floating a foot off the ground all the while.

True Literati enthusiasts will tell you that securing a window seat is a challenging yet noble task. The general makeup of the coffeehouse’s customer base consists of astute-looking millennials and pensive bibliophiles. So, inching your way to one of the store’s treasured window-hugging tables means shuffling through a sea of wool coats, plaid-patterned winter wear and finicky ceramic espresso cups. Yet, I suppose my spiritual awakening had ushered in a kind of serendipity, and so, upon crossing the divide from University-haze to Literati-nirvana, I had a glistening window seat waiting just for me.

With an iced, almond-milk latte — my go-to order, sitting contently next to my Spanish coursebook — I was convinced I had found my own little slice of happiness on campus. I spent the afternoon catching up on classwork and humming along to my favorite playlist, blissfully content with the lingering taste of espresso that rested on my tongue.

Later in the afternoon, as if planted by a divine spirit or maybe even a romantic movie producer, a young man walking on the street below caught my eye contact and waved. I couldn’t help but feel elated by that small exchange — it was the purest little demonstration of love I had experienced since moving to Ann Arbor earlier that fall. 

During my freshman year, leading up to and after my Literati discovery, I approached my coffeehouse crawl with a particular zeal. With weeks of scouting out Ann Arbor’s best coffee joints, starting with the ever-convenient Espresso Royale then venturing to other shops sprinkled across downtown, I quickly discovered that my quest was about something more than coffee. It was in these varied spaces that I had some of my best hustled study sessions, feverishly outlining my next Spanish paper or studying for an upcoming statistics exam. More importantly, these spaces also allowed me to engage in mindful experiences: a lovely interaction with a friendly barista, spending a few minutes gazing at the colorful patrons passing in and out, or even sneaking pictures of the art that kissed the walls. 

In this way, I think coffeehouses occupy a truly unique purpose somewhere between the frigid atmosphere of University academic buildings and the commercial craze of Ann Arbor’s retail and dining scene. These shops serve as a safe haven away from the busied streets of campus, offering a sacred kind of anonymity I began to really cherish. As a Residential College student part of intertwined living and academic communities, it became difficult to draw the boundary between work and play within East Quad Residence Hall, where the RC is housed. So, when I started to venture beyond East University Avenue and explore coffeehouses all across town, this ritual became my time to decompress and observe the culture of the city beyond my RC bubble.

Ultimately, one of the coffeehouse’s most impressive assets is its versatility. While I might frequent these shops to indulge my reclusive romantics, they also serve as a hub for social gathering and even political discussion. This beloved “coffeehouse culture,” actually dates back to the 16th century, when Oxford academics would gather in coffeehouses — hotly referred to as “Penny Universities” — and partake in the elitist, scholarly conversations. 

London’s coffeehouse culture continued to grow in popularity into the 18th century as Londoners sought leisurely conversation, political debate and networking amid their stuffy work lives. With the distribution of newspapers becoming more widespread in the city, coffeehouses were soon positioned as hubs of printed news and up-in-coming intelligence. In 1675, King Charles II went as far as proclaiming the shutdown of all coffeehouses, stating they “produced very evil and dangerous effects,” and were a “disturbance of the peace and quiet realm.” However, his outcry proved ineffective: The people continued to gather, drink coffee and indulge in an café-bred sense of authenticity. 

And they continue to gather today, just with more laptops and less top hats involved.

U-M students have utilized the city’s offering of coffeehouses in a myriad of ways, christening the coffeehouse space as a kind of library turned living room turned campus hub. LSA sophomore Nicole (Nori) Pham frequented the late Espresso Royale on South University Avenue for all sorts of reasons, from studying to drinks with friends to networking. I sat down with the fellow coffee lover (via virtual call) to discuss all things Ann Arbor coffee, wanting to hear how she chose to utilize these spaces. 

“I always went to the South U (Espresso Royale) because I love the atmosphere there,” Pham said. “There was a basement, (and) I would just sort of sit there in between my Bio class and my Physics class. … I would spend almost every day there.” 

Pham even became a regular with the baristas, which eventually earned her “large (drinks) even when I ordered a small. They were just super friendly.” 

As a pre-Med student, Pham also valued the way Espresso Royale offered a space for professional pursuits. 

“I would always set up interviews and stuff at Espresso Royale,” she said. “It was just a very convenient location to have, (where you could) have fun with friends, or study, but also have that professional side where you could connect and network with other members of the Michigan community.” 

Other coffeehouses, like Literati, can serve a different niche for students who, like me, are a sucker for the romantic nature of the space. Public Policy senior Miriam Chung, another member of the unofficial official Literati fan club, told me about her passion for the shop. 

“I love the smell and touch of books,” Chung said. “Even though I wouldn’t buy them because I’m broke constantly, I would linger around the store and pick up books, read the first few pages, move on, repeat.”

She reminisced on the same, divine Literati bookstore-to-coffeehouse threshold that I once crossed as a freshman. 

“What (I) mainly miss about it, it’s that the most interesting people used to come into Literati — people watching provided a fantastic break from studying,” Chung said. “I loved how people from all ends of the spectrum of interests and book tastes would congregate together in that packed, teeny upstairs space.”

From the sleek, scholarly tables of Literati Coffee to the endearingly worn booths of Espresso Royale, University students are finding their own corners of solitude or happiness or community. And with this great variety of espresso-centered environments comes a need to differentiate between all that Ann Arbor “coffeehouse culture” has to offer: Are you team Literati? Espresso Royale? Vertex Coffee Roasters? RoosRoast? Lab? Sweetwaters? 

As a freshman, I made the bold attempt to differentiate between all these spaces through a ranking built on the following criteria: the quality of their iced, almond-milk latte (my signature drink), the strength of their Wi-Fi and the amount and type of seating offered.

After extensive on-site study and coffeehouse scouting, I collected the following data: The Espresso Royale on South University had pretty average Wi-Fi but great seating if you could snag a booth upstairs. Comparatively, the Espresso Royale on State Street had an extremely finicky Wi-Fi signal but a plentiful offering of cushy booths, tables, and couches. Lab had minimal seating but is often championed as the best coffee on campus (personally, their roast is too strong for me).

Alas, with its insanely tasty lattes, reliable Wi-Fi signal, and overall serene atmosphere, I ultimately decided on Literati Coffee as the supreme coffeehouse on campus, and have been a proud member of team Literati ever since. 

Perhaps via less formalized ranking systems, other students have secured their “go-to” spots as well. Engineering sophomore Paul Balko has been frequenting Lab since he first visited on his tour of campus. Now, he says, “Lab is my favorite just because of the atmosphere and their big selection of fun, different lattes and house-made syrups.”

He, too, said he has has been able to differentiate between campus coffeehouses in ways that are, perhaps, more practical than mine. “To blatantly compare (Lab) to Espresso Royale, I think the coffee is higher quality. I never really liked Espresso Royale. My first impression of it was that the name was really bad.” 

Whether the name was bad or not, the signature, yellow “Espresso Royale” slogans still remain emblazoned on their storefronts, like sad fossils from a pre-pandemic campus. And other coffee joints including Literati have joined Espresso Royale in a similarly tragic fate, closing their doors to adhere to Washtenaw County COVID-19 regulations. To coffeehouse enthusiasts or many U-M students, this news means a lot more than just grappling with a world where one can’t purchase an overpriced latte every day.

For students like Balko, closed coffeehouses means, "the loss of a convenient and multi-functional space.” And for Nori Pham, a boarded-up Espresso Royale means terminating an opportunity she once always had to decompress between classes and exchange niceties with friendly baristas. Ultimately, during a semester where students are already feeling the edge of virtual learning and struggling to stay motivated, the loss of the coffeehouse feels like another harsh blow against a version of college some of us already had a taste of.

As cheesy as it may sound, just searching for pictures of Literati Coffee’s interior to inform this article elicited a dull pang in my heart. I see these images and can almost feel like I’m there again climbing a flight of stairs toward a tucked-away nirvana as if Literati was placed there just for me — a wandering freshman from Indiana struggling to become acclimated in a new city on a new campus. 

I know — or rather, I hope — that one day these spaces will be available once again, for other unknowing freshmen to discover and cherish and maybe even learn more about themselves in. Because, if done right, the coffeehouse crawl can be a truly magical thing. 


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