Did you have another career in mind before coffee? If so what?
I did have another career in mind. Murky vision may be a better way to express what was in mind at the time. Back in the sixties, many of us “kids” were not thinking so much about careers as we were about changing the world.
The story below is about the art that has been hanging at my cafes since 1975 when I opened The Coffee Connection, and which can be seen at our Downtown Crossing café (showing two works by Jose Benitez Sanchez) as well as Newtonville (4 works by Tutukila). That comprised my first career.
While at Yale in the early sixties, I gravitated towards the arts–music, painting, and literature. I spent many weekends in New York City going to avant-garde jazz concerts at night (John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler….), and visiting art galleries and museums in the day. I was not so driven to create as to absorb and discover what others communicated in unimagined ways. I was struck with awe and wonder by the unfolding discoveries my eyes and ears received. At one point I financed, with the little money I had, and promoted jazz artists Milford Graves and Don Pullen to give a concert at Yale. I was already gravitating toward showing others what I was discovering. (Sound familiar?) My co-conspirator was Juan Negrin. We had become fast friends in Mexico City where I grew up as a teenager and later went to Yale together. Juan was already a driven artist and thinker of great originality. That is another story…. But what he did next would alter my trajectory in this world.
In the early seventies Juan became involved with the Wixarika people in the Central Sierra Madre of Mexico. It started with their art that was being exhibited in Guadalajara. These were the early days of “yarn paintings”. They were made by pressing colored yarn, a single strand at a time, into softened beeswax laid over a wooden panel. They were about the mythological stories of people popularly called the Huichol – a name given to the Wixarika (x is pronounced like a cross between and soft J and sh) by the West. He went to the city of Tepic where yarn paintings were becoming ubiquitous in a growing number of tourist stores selling indigenous crafts. There, he found a handful of artists who were producing originals that were then copied by craftsmen and sold in stores. He challenged them to return to their roots to create meaningful art with ever deeper expressions of their religion, not to be confused with folklore! This meant going back into the mountains, committing to religious pilgrimages, and learning from established shamans more deeply about their religion. Juan then followed them to the mountains and began deepening his relationship with the Wixarika culture.
By that time, Laurie and I had moved to the San Francisco bay area where Juan was living. Juan began bringing back the yarn paintings he had bought to the San Francisco Bay area. I was blown away by the originality and vitality of the art I saw. There were four artists to begin with, and it was easy to tell their styles apart. With year each artist evolved, developing a unique, ever expanding visual language and greater thematic depth as they participated in the life and rituals of their culture. Here was a living art brimming with beauty and extraordinary individual creativity
I spent the next few years working in a local art gallery in Berkeley near the University campus, explaining the Wixarika works that Juan was bringing back from his long visits to their territory. This culminated when I set up and “curated” a Masterworks exhibit at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in January 1974. The “Masterworks” were what he deemed the most important paintings, held back from sale to be exhibited in museums as ambassadors of the complex Wixarika culture and testaments to their artistic visions.
As soon as the show ended, Laurie and I departed in a used Volvo station wagon with two children in tow and a third on the way, headed for Boston. We were going to visit a friend and then presumably return to Yale to finish my studies; it never happened. Every morning we stopped for breakfast on our drive to Boston. I would take my coffee stash to the men’s room, grind the beans there, and then go order hot water. I would then pour them into our French Press. We never failed to attract attention.
Within days of arriving in Boston, we had run out of the freshly roasted, quality coffee we had brought with us from the birthplace of specialty coffee. We quickly realized that Boston was a desert of brown painted pellets in bins and barrels that one ground into sawdust. It dawned on Laurie and me that there was a real opportunity to produce a thriving coffee culture here, similar to what we had experienced in the San Francisco Bay area. We could support our kids, have our coffee, and – as it would turn out, become a beacon of Wixarika art that would, in some small measure, help their culture weather its challenges to existence and successful evolution
We knew nothing about coffee and there was no one on the East Coast who could act as a mentor. We reached out to the pioneering green coffee importer Erna Knutsen in San Francisco for our first green coffee beans. She helped us get a used coffee roaster from Germany. Over the next thirteen years we would buy 90% of our beans from her and ship them by truck from San Fransisco to Boston at considerable extra expense. She was that much better than anyone else.
Our first café opened in April 1975 in the heart of Harvard Square. We learned how to roast on our own through trial and errors, plural – and there were a lot of them. But the public mobbed us anyway. We had customers jump behind the counter to wash our dishes and refuse payment. It truly was a unique time. We were on the major TV channels within the first three months of opening. We never looked back.
And there on the walls, for all twenty years that we existed, were the yarn paintings. Our proximity to Harvard University led to several major collectors of the art, and to doors opening which brought resources to Juan Negrin’s endeavors. He went on to work with the Wixarika by forming a non-profit organization to protect their environment, and to introduce small community industries making looms and furniture from their forests as a working alternative to timber interests bent on clearcutting. The Coffee Connection was a magnet that enabled Juan to receive aid from Cultural Survival, and through them, Bread for the World. It led to exhibitions at Harvard University and Northeastern University. A major European tour was arranged by someone coming through our café. Finally, in 1986, the four great Wixarika artists that Juan worked with were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, a great milestone where indigenous artists were normally treated as folk art only.