Coffee House Culture

While attending to my father’s convalescence and physical therapy, we have had an opportunity to catch up on various stories of family history and the shared passion for understanding our human traditions.  One of the memories he described was his father Dimitri’s coffee house in Canton, Ohio.  Before opening in Canton in 1925, he had run a coffeehouse for the local coal mine in Sunnyside Utah.

Carbon County History

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Burned out by a jealous rival and alarmed by the Castle Gate coal mine explosion that killed many of his friends and acquaintances, he moved the family to Canton to start over.  My father remembers watching Dimitri make the coffee by boiling it in an ibriki (Greek coffee pot), letting it rest and boiling it again—three times altogether.  When he poured the coffee into the demitasse cup, my father would marvel at Dimitri’s mastery of the craft.  Skillfully, he started at the bottom and accurately lifted the pot up about two feet, then down again, filling the cup and never spilling a drop.  The coffee always came out perfect with kaimaki (foam) around the edge.

Coffeehouses had been the Greek version of service clubs, such as Masonic Temples, Elks Lodges, etc.  These became popular in America during the late 19th century as men’s clubs and respites for a patriarchal society.  Brought over from Greece, coffeehouses fit seamlessly into this model and were the center of social activities in Greek communities across the country.  Business was bolstered by fresh immigrants off the boat throughout the beginning of the 20th century.  Coffeehouses were strictly men only establishments and my father remembers going with his mother as a young child to a coffeehouse looking for her husband and to try and get him to come home.  They wouldn’t let her inside which left a powerful memory for a young boy.

Dimitri’s coffeehouse in Canton only lasted a couple of years before he sold it.  Times were changing.  After this my father remembers him going to a coffeehouse to look for someone and there would hardly be anyone in there.  Asking for the person Dimitri would be told “they are married, they’re home.”  Still, Dimitri was brought up on and spent his formidable years in, the coffeehouse culture.  My father remembers him saying “Tha pao y sto kafenion,”  ‘I am going to the coffeehouse” as he walked out the door in the evenings.  In 1946, my father was visiting the Canton home on a break from college, and met one of Dimitri’s old coffeehouse acquaintances who arrived by bus and did not own a car.  It was a bit of leftover history as most of the coffeehouses had been shut down by then.  He remembers the visitor as well educated and knowledgeable, staying as a “guest of the home” all day and all evening.

Society was changing very fast in those days. Coffeehouses were the product of simpler times, when people travelled by foot, interacted in person and lived by the course of the sun.  In a few short years, electricity, telephone, radio, automobiles and a host of supporting contraptions would undermine long established social structures.  The younger generations were looking to the future, the bright promises offered by new technologies and modern lifestyles, unencumbered by the restrictions of previous generations.

Later, as a social worker in Cleveland in the late 1960’s, my father remembers discovering remnants of a Greektown on a downtown side street near the old Erie Street Cemetery.  One coffeehouse was left with a few “coffeehouse bachelors” who would sit there all day reading papers, nursing coffees and discussing events of the day.  When I first moved to Detroit in the late 1970s, there was still one old style coffeehouse in Greektown on Monroe Street with a few patrons who would play cards, read papers and talk emphatically, the same way as past generations.  I also had an opportunity to visit the original counterparts in Greece.  Every village still had one or two establishments where one could hear animated conservations while passing by.  The coffeehouses still provided a forum for free political and social discussion.  (Considering the fact that women were left out qualified the true democratic ideal)  They were diminished in the early 1970s during the reign of the Junta when public venues were often seeded with spies.  After democracy returned, younger generations did not revive the coffeehouse culture as it had been.  In the mid 1980s some coffeehouses were opened for women by women and it was a huge subject in Greek conversations at the time.   Greece was about to join the EU and most (men and women) thought it was a “good thing” or “about time.” For some stubbornly stoic men, it was an assault on tradition and they could not imagine a place where women would not need men!  I heard one woman respond “don’t forget it is the Greek women who have raised the great men of Greece.”  With that said, those men in the conversation were silenced and justifiably so.  Because of these forward thinking women, along with changes in social trends, coffeehouses have had an upswing in popularity. They continue, not as bastions of the old patriarchal society, but as unencumbered community venues for both men and women.  If Dimitri were there today, he would only find small resemblances in coffeehouse life, yet—he undoubtedly would appreciate the Greek spirit that is still alive and well in his Hellenic homeland.

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