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Jack Kerouac and Jack Mormons at the Beatnik Cafe

IMG_1450It was an unassuming storefront with a killer name, Albion Beatnik Cafe, and an unassuming drizzly morning watched a couple of American drowned rats enter the premises. The Beatnik Cafe was the kind of place to peruse, pursue, and, hopefully, purchase for the pleasure of language. Our eyes swept the cubby shelves of literary wonders from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s . . . though not any Nelson Algren works (such as Man with the Golden Arm). I found myself suddenly wanting to peruse this Chicago author’s books after thumbing through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. Simone and Nelson loved each other across Paris-Chicago-Paris and back again. Were they Beatniks? Their outrageously good writing and double world-war auras certainly put them firmly in the same era.

The proprietor appeared, appropriately unhinged (the hair helped), with two French presses. This was the kind of shop that could convince you to linger in Oxfordshire a few more weeks. Travelers are reluctant book-buyers, but I did buy the coffee and fully appreciated the public offerings, like the Beatnik reading group and open mics. The whole choosing of the coffee mugs from the narrow shelves was also a lovely touch. This perfect, quirky, and thank-god-it’s-off-the-academic-path kind of store was a place where someone could discuss writing and weather, Algren and anarchy, poetry and deals made with devil

This wasn’t going to be The Inklings’ kind of experience, though. Too populist for that. The Inklings, including professors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, used to sprawl at the front tables in the Eagle and Child pub, reading their unfinished writings, perhaps never suspecting they’d be remembered in hushed tones and Peter Jackson epics. The Eagle and Child also might not have served the Inkling heavyweights the same gorgeous board of a two-inch-thick cheeseburger and chips that I enjoyed several afternoons ago. But perhaps they also slathered whatever they did have with Colman’s mustard, brown sauce, ketchup, and vinegar that shot up into the sinuses. The Beatnik can serve cake and the odd cookie with the tea and coffee, but no burgers or chips. Perhaps that’s a good thing with so many greasy hands potentially handling so many lovely books.


At the Beatnik Cafe

Kerouac probably would have hated Oxford’s stuffiness, the holier-than-thou attitudes, the silly hats. But I think that the shy Franco-American would have loved the warm and quietly welcoming Beatnik for a winter’s coffee or a pot of tea on a drizzly fall afternoon, or a small gathering of sodden poets, shaking umbrellas at the door of this lovely shop. Would that Jack had gone for the tea and coffee instead of the Jack Daniel’s.

I had assumed that being a Utahn might give me some kind of exotic cachet in this little Oxford establishment . . . I mean, how many from the Beehive State could possibly be walking the ancient cobbled streets–meat pies and Latin tomes in hand–and also be interested in the godless Beats and their minions?

Turns out the man at the next table was married to a Jack Mormon woman from Provo.

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