The Emporium/Underdog Café: Lost in Time

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by Ed Davis on October 29, 2011

 The Real Thing
Talk about creaky wooden floors and funky circa-1965 style! Consuming two formerly side-by-side shops at 233 Xenia Avenue in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the Emporium/Underdog Café is heaven for writers of every stripe (as well as artists, activists, academics and thinkers). Any time of day you can spot laptops, tablets and good old-fashioned pen and paper being wielded in quirky comfort. Other coffee shops might have better coffee, cutesier cupcakes and frou-frou sandwiches, but E/UDC has the “meat and potatoes.” Substance over style is apparent in every aspect of the place, from funky ambiance to the luscious homemade food, from soups to sandwiches to killer breakfasts.

Yellow Springs’ Living Room

For many, this place is the beating heart of The Town That Time Forgot. Though the tag of Hippie Town both amuses and irritates me, a resident of over thirty years, it is, like any stereotype, somewhat true. If you want to see the patrons of E/UDC through that lens, you can: bearded, long-haired men; women in granny dresses and beads; toddlers in tie-dye. But I see laid-back diversity. Folks of all age, origin, creed and class are as comfortable here as they are in their own living rooms. If you don’t believe it, attend a Friday night wine tasting, where mostly locals groove to some of the best (mostly) home-grown music you’ll hear anywhere. It’s joyous, raucous and safe as Sunday school. But you came to hear about the literary life, didn’t you?

The Inner Life

If, like me, you’re a fan of writing in public, E/UDC is the Rolls Royce (or ’65 Ford Mustang). If you’ve never tried it—and you want to get started—then all you gotta do is walk through the door; the subtle tinkling of that little bell on the door will rocket you back four decades. The Emporium’s wooden floor is old and scarred, the light dim, the walls packed with coffee and beer, the counter and case full of delectable food and goodies. Accompany your coffee with a homemade macaroon or decadence bar.

Stroll on in, take a left and the short ramp will land you in the Underdog, where the furniture’s a charming hodge-podge of Goodwill fare. Join me at one of the scarred, scrawled wooden tables. I love the low-slung vinyl chair, the beaded lampshade, the butt-eating couch, the paint-peeling concrete floor and the ubiquitous art on the walls of the Underdog. Drop in at 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday (as I am now) and you might find silence, quite a contrast to Friday nights or weekend mornings. On the other hand, you might overhear an interview in progress; a low, intimate conversation; or someone soapboxing big-time. One afternoon in recent memory I witnessed a meeting of a youth chess club; on another, three elementary-aged girls were singing while bent over their arts, crafts or—who knows—Marxist manifestos. I love the diversity, especially in age.

Ready…Set…Write

Mug full of House Blend, Ghirardelli dark chocolate consumed, I’m ready, aren’t you? As shadows outside lengthen, you sink deeper and deeper; the sounds of clinking mugs, rising voices, distant radio subside and you plunge into the subterranean depths of your writer’s trance…

When someone enters on the Emporium side, sending the bells a-tinkle, you look up, blinded by a burst of sudden light. Outside, framed by the storefront window, you see through your post-trance haze a picture-postcard-perfect snowfall in progress. Flakes flutter straight down, obscuring human figures across the street, customers to-and-fro-ing from Tom’s Market. You almost expect to see Dickensian frock coats and top hats, buttoned shoes and bustles, a passing carriage on a street now a whitening mass of frozen mud. Where the hell am I? You wonder.

Returning to the page or screen, you bring your sestina, screenplay or sci-fi blockbuster to a close and glance at your watch. Incredible. Two hours have passed. You’re now between worlds, missing the depths where sound was muted, walls transparent, colors unearthly. Someone has begun playing the piano: soft, tentative chords fill the space left by your retreating dream. As a violin joins in, you sit back, as tired and happy as a just-surfaced snorkeler returned to air and sun.

The Wraiths

Stoneycreek Roasters in nearby Cedarville, another of my favorite coffee shops, has a deck above a creek, but it can’t compare to E/UDC for atmosphere inside. I’ve seldom written within these walls when I didn’t sink at least several leagues beneath the endless sea of my imagination. If you can’t write well here, you can’t write in public and should probably keep to your garret. The place itself is a worthy subject. E/UDC was my model for the Bean Tree in my novel The Measure of Everything; I had a lot of fun memorializing it by setting several significant scenes within these worthy walls.

You might also consider inviting some pals to join you for a writers’ workshop. Nobody will bother you. Even if you live here, it’s possible to disappear. Let your body language announce your intent; Yellow Springers are great respecters of space. Solitude is possible even in the presence of prolific sociability. Even during the gabbiest times—Saturday or Sunday mornings—I’ll see the writing wraiths, hunkered invisibly at tables against the wall. It takes my writer’s eye to distinguish them from the paintings, quilted figures and dim drawings. I glance and look away, turn my attention back to my newspaper or essay I’m grading. I know I’ll soon be joining my brothers and sisters in writing.

Cultural Oasis

As is no doubt evident, there are plenty of reasons besides writing to visit this magical place. Many come to perform—musicians from all over love the reception they get here. (Visit the website for the full schedule of upcoming events.) But the management is open to all sorts of cultural fare. I debuted The Measure of Everything here on a Friday night back in ’05 with the help of The Fries, a fabulous Miami Valley oldies band specializing in 3-part harmonies and acoustic guitars. I knew better than to assume the wine tasters could live by words alone, and the chapter I read got a very respectful hearing before we rocked out.

And politics. Anyone who knows anything about Yellow Springs knows that we relish debating the issues of the day, with a slight leaning toward the liberal. Campaigning politicians, local and state, as well as activists from all over wanting to draw a crowd to discuss an issue show up here. One village council member conducts weekly “office hours” here. And with Antioch College’s first new class since the closing of ’08 now convened, the cultural/political scene should be livelier than ever. (Of course it never stopped.)

More Than a Coffee Shop

Those of us who live here wonder how we ever got along without this funky place. Of course people talk on the street and in the produce section at Tom’s, at the Sunrise, Winds, the Trail Tavern and Dayton Street Gulch, at Street Fair and Friday Flings. But while all those venues have their loyal constituencies, it seems that if we had to choose just one place to embody who we are, the Emporium/Underdog Café would win, hands-down. See you there?

Links/Resources:
Emporium/Underdog Café website – http://emporiumwines.com/cafe/
Stoneycreek Roasters website – http://www.stoneycreekroasters.com/
The Fries – http://www.reverbnation.com/thefriesband

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