By William Burg
In the 1960s, when “Starbuck” was still just a character in Moby Dick, Sacramento’s first coffeehouses jangled the nerves of the Beat Generation. In Oak Park, artist Sal Yniguez opened the Belmonte Coffee Shop at 2975 35th Street in 1962, a beatnik café inhabited by artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Gregory Kondos and Russ Solomon (profiled in Midtown Monthly, February 2010). At about the same time, the Iron Sandal, a coffeehouse at 23rd and Broadway, featured live jazz, and nurtured local musicians like saxophonist Mel Martin. Hipsters and beatniks from CSUS and Sacramento State, local artists and musicians, and the first stirrings of Sacramento’s gay community found refuge at these cafes in the Sixties.
Midtown’s first coffee shop of note was the Weatherstone, opened in 1974. According to Michelle Fong, a Midtown resident in the 1980s, Weatherstone featured big couches, a piano, and an enormous unabridged dictionary on a stand. Proximity to a laundromat and the nearby Oasis Ballroom drew a mixed crowd of nearby residents and music fans. “Weatherstone encouraged you to kick back,” said Fong. “You could spend half a day there.” Pastries and coffee were delivered regularly from San Francisco.
Other central city cafes of the 1970s and 80s included Tara’s Place, Juliana’s Kitchen, Espresso Metro, Terra Roxa and Gelato Robi, but the first local coffeehouse to roast their own beans was Java City. Founded by former state employee Tom Weborg at 18th and Capitol in 1985, Java City’s roasting operation filled the neighborhood with a distinct aroma that drew residents from Midtown and workers from Downtown office buildings.
In 1986, Java City hosted its first poetry marathon, the brainchild of local poet B.L. Kennedy. Poetry marathons and high-quality coffee cemented Java City as Midtown’s cultural epicenter. At night, Java City was the only business for blocks, an oasis of light at 18th and Capitol. The neighborhood was far less safe than it is today; young women on their way to Java City were sometimes propositioned by passing cars, mistaken for the streetwalkers who worked near Georgian’s Casino on J Street. Java City became a cross-section of the city: new wave shop girls in leopard print coats and cat-eye glasses, poets, musicians and artists trading work and opinions, punks and skinheads in flight jackets and Doc Martens, recovering alcoholics and addicts taking a break from AA meetings at nearby Group One, bikers, retirees, office workers, urban professionals, and disabled residents of nearby board and care homes.
Former employee Nick Roberts, who worked at Java City in 1991-1992, said that the job could be frustrating, due to the sometimes too-close eye of supervisors, but he, like many employees, spent almost as much time hanging out at Java City as he did working. “Even after I got off work, I’d still find myself there—virtually everyone I knew would be there.” In addition to the social scene, the drinks themselves were excellent—Roberts waxed poetic about the “Fro-Mo,” a chocolatey mixture of gelato and espresso. “Whenever anyone ordered it, I deliberately made too much, and saved the extra for myself!”
By the 1990s, coffee became a big business, and Java City expanded into a regional chain, opening shops throughout northern California. Other cafes opened nearby, such as New Helvetia, which turned an old 1893 firehouse from a heroin shooting gallery into a coffeehouse. No Jive Java, an upstart operation run by former Java City employees, opened up right next door to Java City, offering lower prices and later hours, but only lasted a few years. Capitol Garage at 15th and L Street added live music to the mix, becoming a prominent music venue before relocating to its current digs at 16th and K. Java City’s expansion was followed by contraction, as competing national chains opened franchises on every block, but the flagship location remains at 18th and Capitol.
Pickles T. Catt, a regular of many Midtown coffeehouses, reflected on them fondly. “I thank God for those places. I had the best times of my life hanging out at those spots. I don’t know if it’s the age I was or just being old and jaded now, but when I was hanging at those spots it was such a great mix of people and, as weird as it sounds, its own community. Nowadays, most coffee shops seem soulless.”
Today, you can’t swing a dead cat in Midtown without knocking over someone’s double latte, even if it’s more likely to spill on their laptop or smartphone than a copy of Camus’ No Exit or a notebook of poetry and sketches. Midtown café regulars include plenty who first sat at Java City, Weatherstone or other long gone café decades ago, joined by a new generation seeking high-quality beans and free Wi-Fi. All seek inspiration and energy, both from the stimulant effects of caffeine and the atmosphere of a Midtown café.