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Jack Kerouac and Jack Mormons at the Beatnik Café

It was an unassuming storefront with a killer name: the Albion Beatnik Café.  And, on an unassuming drizzly morning, that café watched this drowned American rat step through the door to the premises. The Beatnik Cafe was the kind of place to peruse, pursue, and, hopefully, purchase for just the pleasure of language. My eyes swept the cubicles of literary wonders from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s . . . though I found no works by Nelson Algren (such as Man with the Golden Arm). I had wanted to read this Chicago author’s books after thumbing through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. Simone and Nelson had loved each other across Paris, Chicago, then Paris, and back again. Were they Beatniks? Their outrageously good writing and world-war auras certainly put them firmly in that era.

Mugs, events, reading groups at the Beatnik Cafe

Dennis, the proprietor, appeared, appropriately unhinged (the hair helped), with a French press. This was the kind of shop that might convince me to linger in Oxfordshire a few more weeks. Travelers are reluctant buyers of actual books, but I did buy the coffee and fully appreciated reading about the Beatnik reading group and open mics. Choosing your own coffee mug from the narrow shelves was also a lovely touch. This perfect, quirky establishment off the beaten path is a place where someone could discuss writing and weather, Algren and anarchy, poetry and deals made with devil

This wasn’t going to be an 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 writing projects, 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 platter of a two-inch-thick cheeseburger with chips that I enjoyed there several afternoons ago. But perhaps they also slathered whatever they did have with Colman’s mustard, brown sauce, ketchup, and vinegar that shoots up into the sinuses. The Beatnik can serve cake and the odd cookie with the tea and coffee, but you won’t find burgers or chips. Perhaps that’s a good thing with so many hands reaching to grasp so many lovely books.

Kerouac probably would have hated Oxford’s stuffiness, the holier-than-thou attitudes, the tams, caps, and bonnets. But I think that the shy Franco-American would have loved the warm and quietly welcoming Beatnik Café for a winter’s coffee or pot of tea on a drizzly fall afternoon, or a small gathering of sodden poets, shaking umbrellas at the door of this welcoming shop. Would that Jack had more often gone for the tea and Dennis’s mother’s lemon cake instead of so much of the Jack Daniel’s.


I had assumed that being a Utahn might give me some exotic cachet in this little Oxford haven. I mean, how many from the Beehive State could possibly be walking these 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 revealed he was married to a Jack Mormon woman from Provo.

Update. Sadly the Albion Beatnik Café closed in 2018, though you can still find concerts, readings, and author talks on YouTube. I even watched a man demonstrate Turkish marbling, a form of monoprinting, with all those wonderful beat books decorating the background.

See also my novel Murder at the B&B, an Ophelia Perhaps Mystery, which features the Albion Beatnik Café.

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