Portland and Seattle may take coffee very seriously, but San Diego can boast a newspaper devoted entirely to coffee shops and all the news that's fit to print about them. John Rippo is the publisher of The Espresso, and he's convinced that coffee shops are the places to catch juicy moments of the human experience as they happen.
Inspired by European periodicals written for the cafe intelligentsia, Rippo curates local news in his monthly paper to inspire his fellow San Diego residents to social or political action.
But one of the most popular sections of the newspaper is somewhat lighter fare: Heard in the Houses, a coffee shop gossip column. For 16 years, Rippo has been writing these vignettes about fleeting moments inside San Diego's many coffeehouses. Most are humorous; some are poignant, he says.
To collect the stories, he visits the city's hundreds of coffee shops, observing people and eavesdropping on them.
"There are actually a few places that have wonderful acoustics, so if you sit in one corner, you can hear everything that's going on in the opposite corner," Rippo tells Morning Edition host David Greene.
Here's one vignette from the column that Rippo chose to share with us:
Early morning at New Break. A man settles into one of the seats looking out at the beach, sips his coffee, whips out an electric shaver, and starts shaving. A woman with a compact holds the mirror for him as locals watch with equal amounts of mystery and amusement.
Another, powerful vignette came out of an encounter Rippo had with someone on the brink of death:
I walked into the Cafe Italia one afternoon and saw a man sitting at an outside table. He was wrapped in a blue wool overcoat and he was writing a letter. And as I walked by, I saw that he had a revolver in his lap. So I went inside, I ordered a pair of espressos, went back to his table, sat down and asked him who he was going to shoot. And his reply was that he had no money and he was writing a suicide note. So, I had just been paid from an advertiser in cash and I offered to buy his revolver. I like guns, I collect them and he had a very rare gun in his lap. So I offered to buy his gun and part of the deal was that I got to take him to the railroad station and call his daughter who was in L.A. She was very happy to hear from her dear old dad and couldn't wait to see him. So, in exchange for his gun, I bought him a railroad ticket and something to eat and gave him an espresso and sent him on his way. The Webley Mark VI revolver is now a paper weight on my desk.
"Coffee shops are full of that kind of thing, and they always have been," he says.
As a keen observer of coffee shop culture over the past couple of decades, Rippo has seen a lot of changes, especially with the arrival of WiFi.
"Coffeehouses for hundreds of years were where people went to meet their friends and converse face to face," he says. "You walk into coffeehouses now and they're silent, and people are hunched over a laptop or a cellphone and they don't talk. It looks like an office without cubicles."
But even as San Diego's coffee shops have evolved with the times, Rippo says the city's diverse immigrant communities — including Mexicans, Russians, Somalis, Iraqi Chaldeans and Eritreans — help keep the coffee distinct.
"There is perhaps nowhere else where you can find an espresso with an horchata blend, or a Turkish-Vietnamese [coffee], served hot or cold," he says. "For better and otherwise, San Diego's take on coffee is like no other."
For those of us stuck in a cubicle who miss the coffee shop vibe, a website called Coffitivity plays a loop of ambient sounds from a coffee shop to help boost creativity.
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