birthday, Linnaea’s Cafe!
STORY BY GLEN STARKEY
For some of us, San Luis
Obispo is of two eras: B.L.C. and A.L.C. (Before Linnaea's Café and After
Linnaea's Café turns 20 this month and will celebrate this Sunday, May 16, from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The public, as always, is invited to join proprietor Linnaea Phillips and enjoy food, entertainment, and an exhibition of photographic portraits of café regulars by Barry Goyette.
Linnaea, a spry septuagenarian, isn't as involved in the business as she once was, though you can still find her there most mornings holding court at the table in the front window. Her graciousness is the stuff of legend. Just ask Miguel Paredes, a local insurance salesman who for the past 15 years has come to the café nearly every morning for coffee and conversation. He, like a lot of locals, thought the business was doomed from the start.
"I was driving by one Sunday afternoon with my wife and decided to stop and get a cup of coffee, but the place was closed on a Sunday afternoon, as it always is. I said, 'This place will never make it.' Later I stopped in for coffee one morning and Linnaea came up and introduced herself; then she introduced me to everyone else who was sitting at the table in the front window. That's when I realized, 'Wow, this place is going to make it.'"
Linnaea, diminutive and bespectacled, has always been the catalyst that binds the café's eclectic clientele.
At one time, the café had a reputation as something of a leftist political hotbed, a place where hippies or beret-wearing pseudo intellectuals gathered to discuss current topics, play chess, or be seen. These days the café's patrons have settled into a comfortable mix.
"We have a nice variety of suits and non-suits, as I call them," said Linnaea one sunny afternoon last week under the arbor of her garden patio, which was, sure enough, filling up with lunch patrons: business people, college students, tourists, families.
We were poring over her collection of photo albums that chronicles the transformation of this former wig shop into what it is today, and as a longtime patron, it was like a walk down memory lane for me, seeing photos of the old baristas and some of the various café events. We were trying to find a couple of photos to go with the story.
"How about this one?" asked Linnaea, pointing at a photo of the torn-up shell of her future café.
"That's no good," I said. "That could be any old dump."
"That's what it was, 'Any old dump.'"
Linnaea took her first tentative steps toward becoming an entertainment maven around 1980, when she began hosting house concerts, first in her house on Pismo Street, and later, after her divorce, on Broad Street.
"Oh, the city got so frustrated with us," she recalled. "They heard we were collecting money. And then they became hysterical over the parking issue. It was all so illegal, though all the money went to the musicians. But it seemed like we were making money."
Due to the conflict with the city, early in 1984 Linnaea's outlaw concerts moved to Norwood's Bookstore on Monterey Street. She promoted about three shows a week and began toying with the idea of opening her own venue.
At the time, there was only one coffee shop in town, the Koffee Klatsch on Higuera; however, it was more of a tasting bar, where patrons could sample various kinds of coffee in tiny paper cups and buy the beans to take home. The idea of a sit-down café was completely foreign in SLO Town; moreover, the idea of a café with a dedicated room for concerts, poetry readings, film screenings, and art shows was not only novel, but more than a little crazy. It sounded like a money loser for sure.
Of course the other problem was funding. Linnaea was a mother of three on a Cuesta College librarian's salary, who had a $20,000 divorce settlement - not nearly enough to gut a building, refurbish an interior, create a patio garden, and stock a café with plates, cups, an espresso machine, and all the other sundries.
"I had no idea how to do this, but I was talking to Jake Feldman - Do you know him? He was the first Peace Corps member, appointed by President Kennedy - anyway, I told him my problem and he said, 'Why don't you just ask people for money?' I said, 'How can I do that?' He said, 'Just ask.' So I said, 'Jake, can I have a hundred dollars?' 'Okay,' he said, and he wrote me a check."
Linnaea created a promotional campaign requesting a $100 donation or the donation of a folding chair - "in case the business folded." Unbelievably, she received 150 $100 donations, which she added to her own $20,000, and with $35,000 she renovated the building and opened her café in May of 1984.
Creation of the café's charming patio was something of a Tom Sawyer-esque stroke of genius.
"I asked people to come to the café and bring a brick," said Linnaea. "Everybody has a brick lying around their house. A lot of friends helped spread the word, and all these people came and brought bricks.
"The process was inventive and on a shoestring - almost more exciting because I didn't have an endless amount of money. It was a challenge to figure out how to do it."
Linnaea has always been adventurous, but as she's gotten older it's grown into a kind of obsession that's taken the form of travel. She's been to China twice, once for six months when, as a 69-year-old, she moved there to teach English. Since then she's been to the Czech Republic, Bhutan, Thailand, Spain, and France . with more to come. At 71 years old, she shows few signs of slowing down, though she's quick to admit her interest in the day-to-day operations of the café has waned.
"I used to do more of the motherly thing, more consulting with the staff," recalled Linnaea. "We always had this philosophy, this understanding that for employees, this wasn't going to be their profession, but that they could learn from their experience here, because parading before them every day was life and experience and people who had something to teach them. It all came to them.
"We used to do a lot of employee picnics, and at one point I even hired a consultant for three months to help them learn to communicate better, to learn to convey their wants to one another. We don't do that as much anymore."
What Linnaea's Café still does, what it's never stopped doing in fact, is provide a venue for local artists. Linnaea and I came upon a photo of someone covered in mud playing percussion on tin garbage cans.
"Oh! The mud men!" exclaimed Linnaea. "That was so much fun. When you try to tell people about some of this stuff, they say, 'You did what? And the carpet was covered in mud?'"
We discovered another photo of the back patio turned into a corral filled with life-size papier-mâché cows being overseen by a papier-mâché blue cowboy, which was created by The Maestro, as he came to be known. The local artist eventually moved to the Bay Area and made a name for himself as an outsider artist who sewed his own elaborate cowboy outfits and even had a documentary film made of his life and career.
"There's no freak, no freak in life anymore," lamented Linnaea. "Everything's so common. The shock value's gone out of everything, probably due to television."
Linnaea's was the place for freak, no doubt, and much of it was provided in the form of performance and visual art.
"The art idea was very original at the time, and I think for the most part it's worked," she recalled. "We've had good and bad shows - good and bad as in how desirable they were to the public. It's always been a venue for people on the verge of beginning, people who needed an audience, and we gave them that. We've never censored anyone."
Sure enough, even in the face of controversy and boycotts, Linnaea has refused to ask any artist to remove a painting. Several years ago I had a show in which one painting featured a slaughtered woman with a naked man with an erect penis holding a knife. Several patrons were offended, telling Linnaea they wouldn't return until the picture was gone, yet she wouldn't budge. After 9/11, painter Steven deLuque put up a painting with an American flag coming out of the rectum of a man in the midst of raping the Statue of Liberty - a risky move in those jingoistic times. Despite the controversy, Linnaea supported deLuque's artistic integrity.
The café was never afraid of a little experimentation, though not all experiments were successful. At one time, journals were available for patrons to write in.
"I think that was the beginning of how you cleared your mind before you went to psychiatry," laughed Linnaea. "We don't have the kids like we used to, but that was always something of a double-edged sword because some of the kids took these books and made them into something vicious. I think if you took these books and looked through them, you can sense a shift in society."
The books make for fascinating reading. One, dated July 1986, begins with "Get away from her you bitch!" and "He's nice, he doesn't make me sleep in the wet spot," below which are two stick figures, one with what look like meaty hams for legs. In a different color pen, someone has added "My thighs?" to the drawing.
On another page is a drawing of a supine Santa Claus with a sword through his gut and in block letters "SANTA IS DEAD." "Yes, we have killed him. Who gave us the right?" asks another writer. "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the smiles on little children's faces? Who the hell is going to take care of the reindeer?"
These books provided a form of conversation devoid of the responsibility for one's words. In anonymity, writers felt free to insult each other. Some pages read like a bathroom wall: "Why is life?" "Screw off." "He's right, you know. Hatred is one of the answers." "Excuse me?" "Pink tofu?" "The wad squad." "Spermicide time." "'If' is the middle word in 'life.'" "Apocalypse now."
Over its 20-year history, Linnaea's Café has endured its share of ups and downs, highs and lows. For a while, Goth kids - disaffected black-clad teenagers in white makeup - set up camp in front of the café every evening, scaring off potential customers.
"The Goth takeover in the '90s - it changed the evenings totally," said Linnaea. "It wasn't that they bought anything, but they lent a presence - negative for a lot of people - to the café. I think we lost something in that. But it's interesting. I met a young woman the other day who told me she was one of those Goth kids, and without that gathering place she would have had nowhere to go. That's a real problem in this town: There's not a lot of places for teenagers to go."
Ending patio rock concerts eventually led to the Goth kids abandoning Linnaea's as a hangout. Noise complaints from neighbors made the outdoor concerts untenable.
Today Linnaea's has grown up, due in part to its excellent food.
"I think we have a really good lunch, and we get business people in here now, but a lot of people still don't think of us as having food," said Linnaea. "And we have a whole group that comes in for early-morning coffee, some heading off to work, some just getting their day started."
Today, Linnaea's Café is and isn't a lot of things. It's not a professional art gallery, but it shows art. It is a concert venue, but it doesn't make any money on the concerts since any money collected goes to the performers. It's not quite a restaurant, but it serves great food.
"I think we've been successful because people have little or no expectations here. No one's going to wait on you, so you can't get a bad waiter - you have to serve yourself, pick up your own food, carry it to your table. That way you can't be a little island in the middle of the room; you're forced to move around the other people. We wanted it that way. We thought at one point, 'Let's have the coffee behind the counter.' But then we thought, 'No, let them serve themselves.'"
Interaction is the heart of Linnaea's Café, the interaction of its patrons, who come to be fed, entertained, educated. We were all looking for a place like Linnaea's Café; we just needed Linnaea Phillips to shows us the way. ³