Chapterhouse Cafe and Gallery, Philadelphia PA

This shop is a special find for me. I first stumbled upon it – I’m not sure…four, five years ago? I want to say it was when I was here on tour, but that would have been seven. I can’t remember. I had forgotten its existence and rediscovered it again last year when Kara played the Academy of Music and I was doing my favorite wander around the city thing. That day I, again, seemed to just find myself here and remembered, “Oh yeah! I’ve been here before!”

If you didn’t know it was here, you might even walk right past it, save for the bar stools that catch your eye from the street. This neighborhood is Gorgeous. It was a moment for me when I realized I needed to get over myself and just admit – yeah – I WANT this. I want to live here. Do you ever have those things where you just feel so cliché and stereotypical for wanting them, and so you bury it down and laugh at yourself for being so mainstream, so predictable? For me its this- this bourgie < I still haven’t figured out what we’ve agreed on the spelling is for the shortened version > gorgeous Phili neighborhood, with the black-paned brownstone windows, and the kid in the stroller on our way back from our hip urban church, latte in hand and my farmers’ market free range beef that I’m going to grill on my gorgeous vine laden back patio/garden later. Edison bulbs and all. Make it a Loft and I’m done for.

Anyway. This shop. It’s just…great. You walk up some steps from the street to the main floor, the front room giving off an immediate cafe vibe with some hanging plants and a chalkboard owl presiding over the scene. The counter is short and crammed in a beautiful way, leaving more space for a few two tops in the front room. The space extends again, into a middle ‘living room’ with a sealed off fireplace, and again into a third small work room off of a kitchen, and then again into my favorite part- the back room with giant nine foot windows overlooking a rather large outdoor garden/patio. I’ve seen parks smaller than that outdoor space in the back but despite a door that seems to connect to it, I don’t think it’s is open to the public. (later research informs me that it’s owned by the building, yes, but a private space for the owners of the shop who live above!)

The back room is bathed in a warm bluish white-tea light flecked with the greenery from out back. Two walls are lined with a bench for the tables. This is always where I make a b-line for, hoping for an open table. It’s one of those rooms that has productivity built in. Focus is not a problem here and a few hours can go by in the blink of an eye. Giant ceilings, maybe sixteen feet, give the necessary space for creativity and unhinged thinking that has space to move or hang suspended until solutions present themselves. The late afternoon sun streams in the holy grail of natural light that keeps you awake and curious.

It took until this visit to realize that the stairwell at the back of the building is in fact not off limits, but leads down ENTIRE BASEMENT FLOOR of three more rooms…I can’t believe it. This place is HUGE. The downstairs rooms, one more of a glorified (but incredible) “nook”, are even quieter than the (typically) quiet upstairs, and have plenty of table options for what looks like group study, or more private work, reading..whatever you want.

Don’t let the name fool you, ‘Chapterhouse’ doesn’t mean it’s the classic bookstore/coffee shops. There is a bookshelf to keep the name from being totally misleading, but the gallery part holds true as there is always an artist’s work being featured here: right now a series of painted portraits and a wall of impressive needlepoint designs that give one of the middle rooms a sense of movement.

The coffee is always good, each time I’ve been here. It doesn’t blow your mind, but is consistent and great. Today’s cappuccino goes down fast, served in a stainless steel camp mug. I’m already contemplating what the second choice will be.

I also want to give Chapterhouse props for the customer service. Each time I’ve been in, the barista/counter personnel are always kind, open and just – interesting. The woman I met last time was an artist and we got chatting about the local music scene and we found ourselves in a pleasant getting-to-know you level exchange pretty quickly. A busier counter kept me from striking up conversation today, but the service is still friendly and available. It’s a nice touch and not always easy to find in the coffee game that can be either standoffish, or mechanical. You really can’t fake a sense of welcome.

I finished my third Jack Kerouac book, Desolation Angeles, this past week. It took me a long time to get through this one, which I didn’t mind as it became a constant companion over the past year and half. I first read Dharma Bums back in 2007 as a freshman in college and needless to say it blew my sheltered upstate suburban mind. I read the original scroll of ‘Road’ about five years after that when I was on it myself [a fantastic way to read that book], and then started Desolation about five years after that. I average one every five years apparently (though I’ve re-read Dharma Bums twice since the first). They’re all so different so no- I can’t pick a favorite.

Desolation lead me to a bit of one myself. There are parts of this book, pieces of his life and things he did that make it difficult to reconcile the connection I feel to his voice, his story, his wound that he’s working { to borrow a phrase from STEW }, with the real person that he was (as if I could even know that). But then – there’s the question: is a person a sum of their actions? It’s not that I think I’m any better, or can’t appreciate the nuance and complexity of a life’s path to transfix or transform the way one sees (and I know I’m acting out of my own cloth), but the fact remains it is a difficult thing to encounter that certain death that occurs when you see a role-model in fuller light. It’s just a shattering of the hero pedestal I’ve held him on, and serves me right: he’s just a guy. It was ridiculous of me to connect any sense of ownership over him to begin with. It’s not that I expect him to not sleep with 14 year old prostitutes, but the tension here between admiration and disgust forces me to face the fact that I cannot sentimentalize people. Even my heroes. It isn’t that it’s ever been his choices that I admire, as much as his courage to tell and inexplicable writing ability. It’s a weird thing to grow up and find discrepancies in associations that have given so much life in the past.

This aside, the book is yet another fantastic tableau of the aimless American artistic struggle and a chronicle of man vs. life in a fascinating socio-political climate at the brink of the 1960s.

There are little moments of hope appearing throughout my days recently. I had the thought the other day: all of this struggle, all of this felt-ineptitude or incompetence, lack of discipline, or lack of doing career the right way: it’s almost as if I can take that as proof that I AM an artist. What artist ever felt satisfied? There are quotes out there about this- the glory of dissatisfaction and the gnarling [.. yeah – if Shakespeare can make up words- why can’t I? Anthimeria man] at the artistic lifework “leaf by niggle”, so what’s stopping me from being that? Here we are again- needing to prove that we’re an artist. And again- not a holy priesthood. So perhaps I’ll offer this as a lament. Why is being an artist So. Effing. Difficult? Maybe it’s the entrepreneurial struggle: to give birth to something never before seen requires an expansion into the dark unknown of what has never been. While you can use the framework of what has come before to an extent, the actual birthing of something original is exactly that- a birthing – a painful convalescence of many things into something new (that also is dependent on the miraculous). Pain is a part of the process. Thank God I’m learning how to handle pain. I still suck at it but in small ways – I’m getting better. For me it’s patience. The pain of a lack of efficiency. Efficiency- and haste- my favorite vices. No wonder the big thing life’s been saying to me in the past few months is “slow down,” (in addition to “put your fucking phone down”).

I’m getting there. Bit by bit. Certainly not as fast as I wanted to, and not as directly. But who am I to judge the course of my own life? What I love most in life is uncovering, years down the line, the precious things I’ve acquired (or been spared) despite all the kicking an screaming I did through fallow, difficult, or obscure seasons. They all say it’s about releasing anyway, don’t they? Letting go, rather than adding to?

I’m more and more aware of my desire to profit lately: to acquire, to gain. It’s something I don’t love.

That’s another thing I love about life- how the most savored moments always arrive at me, with a sense of coming from without, not created by me from within. And always free of charge. Walking down the street, dinner with my partner. I wish I could remember this more often. To walk in blessing seems to be to walk in simplicity.

Go. To. This. Shop. Today’s visit just solidified it even more. Chapterhouse Cafe and Gallery is one of the best coffee shops on the East Coast.


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