Chief Copy Editor
Here’s a confession: I have OCD. Obsessive Coffee Disorder.
Anyone who associates with me frequently knows it’s a rare sight when I’m not carrying a mug or paper cup filled with dark, black coffee. I own roughly ten mugs, with more expected to join the collection. Gifts more often than not come in the form of coffee-themed objects. (Actually, that’s where most of my mugs came from.) Coffee almost always ends up on the top of my shopping list whenever I do an errand run. If that’s not proof enough, one of my friends has me listed as “The Coffee Addict” in her contacts list.
There’s no denying it. I love coffee.
Admittedly, it’s a symptom of having grown up in Northampton, a countercultural hub in Western Massachusetts that’s surrounded by four liberal arts colleges, and where independently-owned bohemian cafés, or coffee shops, take up twice as much space downtown. On the main street alone, there are approximately nine different places where the menu for the coffee bar is longer than for food. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating here, but you get the idea.)
Caffeine isn’t just a necessity there. It’s a diversion—like knitting or jogging, cafés allow us to unwind, to be away from clutter and at-home distractions, to spend quality time with a friend or partner or get some much-needed work done. Actually, according to writer and media theorist Steven Johnson in a 2010 TED Talk presentation, spaces with a “chaotic environment”—coffeehouses, especially—are often sources of inspiration for innovative ideas.
“The other thing that makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space,” Johnson said after pointing out that the first English coffeehouse was established in 1650. “It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share.”
He added, “And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.” No wonder writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Kaufman, and J.K. Rowling spent most of their time writing in cafés. Without that space, there would be no “The Great Gatsby” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”—or, heaven forbid, even the “Harry Potter” series.
That’s likely why, when I first arrived at Goucher three and a half years ago, I was homesick for such places. Not counting the four Starbucks along York Road, Towson doesn’t offer much in the way of indie coffee shops. So, I dug further in Baltimore and ultimately came up with a list of select places that stood out to me in terms of ambience. Each one of the five listed below is undoubtedly unique, and will leave you feeling as though some time off-campus was well worth it. Who knows, your next best essay may be waiting for you at any one of these places.
Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse | 30 W. North Avenue
Red Emma’s is a self-described radical bookstore and vegetarian restaurant tucked in Station North, an arts district. Just three blocks from Penn Station, this coffee shop is distinctive in the sense that it functions as a worker cooperative; that is, everyone who works at Red Emma’s “owns an equal share of the business.” No bosses, no hierarchy. Everyone takes out the trash. They also support independent, non-corporate publishers that print books underlining themes of social justice, democracy, and solidarity, all of which can be found on the other side of the spacious, brick-lined room. While Red Emma’s offers vegan and vegetarian options by way of food, their selection is local and organic, and low-cost. In addition to coffee, they serve wine and beer, and host public events weekly. So, swing by and grab yourself a plate of the popular classic bánh mì and iced coffee in a mason jar. Or simply wander through their mini library and pick up a copy of D. Watkin’s “The Beast Side.” Or do both.
Spro Coffee | 851 W. 36th Street
Spro—short for espresso, if you didn’t catch that—is one of a handful of coffee shops along West 36th Street in Hampden, a quirky, nostalgic neighborhood not far from Johns Hopkins University and Charles Village. I initially visited Hampden two years ago intending to explore the area and was immediately drawn to Spro’s minimalist scene. Although small, the size of a standard barber shop with a striped awning and large window beholding the interior, Spro prides itself on serving “progressive American coffee,” since it was the first coffee shop to offer an array of coffees from several roasters around the world. Don’t expect much food; this is really the place to refuel on quality caffeine and to kick back for a little while, especially if you’re on an antique shopping spree.
Artifact Coffee | 1500 Union Avenue
Artifact Coffee is also in Hampden, but further away from the hustle and bustle, and easy to miss. Situated in a century-old repurposed mill building, this coffee shop is perhaps the definition of hipster. The décor is gorgeously rustic, with exposed brick walls, intricately patterned wooden tables, and a cozy vibe. I’ve visited Artifact to study and eat out with friends, and found the ambience to be extremely well suited for both occasions. There’s some natural lighting in the side area, which makes for an extremely picturesque scene. This coffee shop serves pretty much everything, from the egg and cheese breakfast sandwich and strawberry danishes to mixed greens salad and, of course, a long list of coffee selections—including “spike-i-atto” and maple lattes. (Or, if you’re like me and prefer just black coffee, it’s just as good.) Plenty of gluten-free options, too. Artifact also hosts a series of readings monthly with different literary writers.
Dooby’s | 802 N. Charles Street
I visited Dooby’s for the first time this month after learning about it at the Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar last semester. Located in Mount Vernon and just down the street from the Walters Art Museum, Dooby’s is a small, laidback “Korean-inspired café” that offers comfort food with a dash of savory Asian flair. While there, I ordered the bacon and egg sandwich, which included pepper jelly. I thought the spread was a curious choice—but, paired with the dull egg sandwich? Exceptionally good. While I opted for my usual black coffee, my friend went with the chai latte, and later said that it was one of the best she ever had. Parking on this street is ridiculously expensive, and it can be bit of a hassle getting to this neighborhood using public transportation, which is Dooby’s only downfall. On the plus side, Dooby’s frequents the Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar every Sunday from spring to early December, so once the magnolias bloom again, be sure to check them out underneath the Jones Falls Expressway.
Golden West Café | 1105 W. 36th Street
To tell you the truth, Golden West Café isn’t a quintessential coffee shop—but, I included it on the list nonetheless because their coffee is so damn good. Golden West is a favorite among college students, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Located in Hampden, this café is uniquely versatile, with a setting that’s unconventional and southwestern-themed, and lots of creative, delectable options. Tater tots with ranch dressing and chili mayo. Caprese burger. Elvis pancakes topped with fried bananas. Vegan French toast. Lemon basil waffles. Yes, please. Golden West also has a bar in the back, and a recently built takeout window for those who are on the go. Despite being huddled among other funky decorative eateries on this street, this place is easy to pick out due to its bright yellow awning, multicolored string lights, and retro-style plastic chairs out front.
(Photo: Inside the beautiful Artifact Coffee cafe. Photo from Google Images.)