The Scene - Rhyme and reason -- 'A sense of togetherness' binds customers, staff at Java Cabana
by Lindsay Melvin
Sinking into cushy sofas in shades of dusty mustard and bruised avocado, a crowd in weather-beaten T-shirts and flowing skirts nursed mismatched mugs of steamy joe. Seated before the mellow gathering, Valerie June, formerly of Bella Sun, belted out a throaty, heart-jerking melody.
June, who has plans to release a solo album this summer, got her start after playing her first live gig at Java Cabana's Open Mike Poetry Night. The Thursday evening event, which usually ropes in poets and a host of musicians, is said to be the longest-running poetry reading in Memphis.
"A lot of things started here," said Chris Owen, 23, a Memphis College of Art student. Now a regular performer and customer at Java Cabana, the singer/songwriter said he also first got up the courage to face an audience at the coffeehouse four years ago.
"They were real supportive of me," said Owen. "There's a sense of togetherness here. If you go to a bar, you don't find this."
The smoke-free coffee lounge near the corner of Cooper and Young was opened in 1992 by California transplant Tommy Foster.
With a fixation for The King, Foster festooned the place in Elvis kitsch. From a backroom in the shop, dubbed Viva! Memphis Wedding Chapel, Foster would pr! eside over wedding ceremonies. According to long time patrons, couples from as far away as Japan came to tie the knot while an Elvis impersonator provided musical accompaniment.
During the lounge's first three years, Mary Burns, a petite Midtowner with long brunet hair, worked behind the counter and ran the evening poetry readings. After butting heads with her boss one too many times, she eventually got fired. Getting the boot, however, did not stop her from hanging out at her favorite java joint.
"I had always wanted to have a coffee shop," said Burns, who imagined it wouldn't happen for at least another 20 years. That dream came true sooner than she expected after word got out that Foster was getting out of the coffee business and relocating.
"So I asked him if he'd sell it to me and he did," she said.
Also an English and literature professor at Christian Brothers University and the University of Memphis, Burns is celebrating her eight-year! anniversary since taking over Java Cabana. She has done away with the Elvis paraphernalia that once dominated the space, along with the wedding chapel.
Cobalt-blue walls are covered with band flyers, Christmas cards and pictures . Along the scuffed , Crayola-red floors are a row of mismatched bookshelves covered in paperbacks and board games. Several chrome and Formica tables with vinyl chairs look like something straight out of a 1950 s sitcom.
Just like everything else about the shop, the hours are laid-back. The owner opens "about 9 a.m." and closes "sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight," Tuesday through Sunday, depending on the crowd.