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12:47 am
Tue April 23, 2013

Newspaper Takes The Pulse Of San Diego Coffee Culture

Originally published on Thu January 9, 2014 12:51 pm

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is coffee week here on MORNING EDITION, and we're exploring how coffee in a sense brings people together. I guess the need for caffeine is a worldwide obsession. And coffee brings people in communities together, often at diners or coffeehouses. The man you're about to meet makes his living watching and listening to how personal connections play out in places like this.

More than two decades ago, John Rippo started a newspaper for San Diego's coffeehouses and cafes. It's called Espresso. He says the city's coffee shops provide him with endless material.

JOHN RIPPO: Everybody has a story and in San Diego there are three million people so there's a lot to choose from. There are all these cultures which live in the same area.

GREENE: And you have a strong Russian community, Iraqi, Somali. I mean, San Diego seems like a really diverse place.

RIPPO: And then we're right on the border with Mexico and that's a whole different world. And it all kinds of coexists here. So there's always something to write about.

GREENE: Well, one of the most popular parts of your publication, Espresso, is called "Heard in the Houses."

RIPPO: Yes.

GREENE: Which seems like it's kind of a coffee shop gossip column.

RIPPO: Yeah. Coffeehouses are small places and they're crowded so everybody is in everybody else's lap. 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.

GREENE: What sorts of things have you heard over the years? What stands out?

RIPPO: Oh, I could read you one.

GREENE: That'd be great.

RIPPO: Oh, here's one. (Reading) 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.

(LAUGHTER)

RIPPO: (Reading) A woman with a compact holds the mirror for him as locals watch with equal amounts of mystery and amusement.

GREENE: All right, give me another. That's fun. This seems fun.

RIPPO: (Reading) The woman at Cafe Calabria sat hidden behind an espresso watching a man two tables away. The woman was older, elegant, stylishly dressed and equipped for yoga. The man was about her age, dressed for tennis and featured a deep bronze tan. He faced the other way. The woman's friend immediately turned her back to the man on seeing him; as better to aid the woman's effort at camouflage.

(Reading) Man ordered a to-go, stood in the doorway for a moment and brightened immeasurably as a sweet, young thing bounded up, kissed him like she meant it and took his arm leading him to a nearby muscle mobile.

GREENE: It really is - I mean, these little slices of life.

RIPPO: Yes, and they're organized in a way to stimulate the reader's imagination. And get him or her to do all the dirty work of putting it together in their mind.

GREENE: Have you seen a change in the coffee shop culture over these 20 years?

RIPPO: Oh yes, many. Coffeehouses for hundreds of years were where people went to meet their friends and converse face to face. You walk into coffeehouses now and they're silent, and people are hunched over a laptop or a cell phone, and they don't talk. It looks like an office without cubicles.

GREENE: You're so right. I haven't thought about it but you almost feel guilty sometimes having a conversation, like you're bothering people hard at work.

RIPPO: And sometimes if you have a conversation there's some guy at a table next to you with a laptop, telling you to be quiet because he's working. And...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Or listening to what you're saying and writing it down.

(LAUGHTER)

RIPPO: Yeah, usually writing it down on a piece paper with a pen. I'm kind of old school that way.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Before I let you go, I've got to hear one more of your vignettes.

RIPPO: Let me give you one that I'm kind of proud of because it's one time when the espresso saved a fellow's life.

GREENE: Wow, that sounds deep.

RIPPO: Well, and of course, it's not coming up on the screen. Where is it? Well, I'll just tell you what it is.

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. And 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. And the Webley Mark VI revolver is now a paper weight on my desk.

GREENE: My goodness. John, that is quite a story and I guess quite a window into, you know, meetings at a coffee shop can be very meaningful.

RIPPO: Coffeehouses are full of that kind of thing. They really are, and they always have been.

GREENE: John Rippo, thanks so much for talking to us.

RIPPO: Thank you.

GREENE: He is the publisher of Espresso, San Diego's coffeehouse and cafe newspaper. And he joined us from member station KPBS in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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