Duke Coffeehouse
Duke Coffeehouse

Weird and Wired at the Duke Coffeehouse

Photography by Les Todd/Audio documentary by Lauren Feilich, produced for the class, The Short Audio Documentary, taught by John Biewen at the Center for Documentary Studies.
Images: 
February 11, 2014

On stage, a woman taps at synthesizers and drum boxes, creating alien noises with her fingertips. Across the room, behind the soundboard, senior Jack Tarpey listens with earphones askew. He tweaks dials that correspond to synths, drums, and vocals, transforming a tangled racket into a starry, liquid melody.

The music is neither of sea nor space, but somewhere equally otherworldly: the Duke Coffeehouse, a café and show venue straddling the Duke-Durham border at the edge of East Campus.

Weird but beautiful, was Tarpey’s first impression of the Coffeehouse, its walls painted with flying saucers and mythical beasts and air warmed by the scent of roasted beans. As a freshman barista, he learned to wield a steam wand, pull an espresso shot, and pour a latte. But beyond the art of coffee, Tarpey’s true calling was mixing sound for the legendary shows hosted by the Coffeehouse on the weekends. An established Durham venue, it draws musicians from around the Triangle, from across the country, and from as far as Canada and Europe.

Center stage: The Coffeehouse in pre-show splendor

Tonight’s lineup includes two local indie bands and the headliner, an “avant-pop” soloist from Estonia. As Tarpey continues to sound check, several baristas mill about the coffee bar. The Coffeehouse is run by students. They hire and train staff, stock and sell sundries, and book and manage performances. Each weeknight until 2 a.m., baristas attend to classmates, who come to socialize and study, grateful for a relaxed alternative to the taut silence of the university’s libraries. But like a secret hideout in their own backyard, the Coffeehouse is lost on many students, who may spend their entire Duke tenure without knowing it exists.

The ones who did find and frequent it are preserved in a series of Polaroids taped around the sink. These alumni, all past employees, peer out at a Coffeehouse much like the one in their memories. Aside from new speakers installed last fall, change happens slowly here. “Nobody wants to get rid of stuff,” Tarpey says, referring to the storied bathroom walls, covered in a motley scripture of curses and benedictions: God is dead; We are young forever. He says at a recent staff meeting, “Somebody suggested, ‘Hey, maybe we should paint over the walls,’ and everyone else was like, ‘NO!’ ”

The Coffeehouse lacks the university’s signature gothic arches and gleaming new gadgetry. Instead, its congregants cherish trippy murals, long-dead appliances, and a jumble of mismatched furniture. “The Coffeehouse is my chapel,” says barista Lauren Feilich, a sophomore. This grungy mystique is what attracted barista Derek Saffe, a senior. “It had its own special aura when I first came in,” he recalls. “It was just very different from the Duke social venues that I was accustomed to. It’s like a little refuge from the sanitized nature of Duke that we’re usually given.”

Teaching moments: Senior Jack Tarpey (right) coaches sophomore Sharrin Manor on the soundboard.

In its topsy-turvy glory, the Coffeehouse is a place where you don’t have to be perfect. “No one’s social-climbing, no one’s trying to get further in i-banking, no one here is adding to their résumé,” says Feilich. “Besides dorm-room friendship, it’s the most organic kind of community.”

Founded in 1981 by SHARE, Duke’s first alternative living group, the Coffeehouse tends to attract students of bohemian ilk, though it is avowedly non-exclusive, notable at a school where cliques hold sway. “It manages to draw in all kinds of students from all different Duke social circles,” attests former general manager Andrew Karim, a senior.

Diverse as they may be, Coffeehousers share a thirst to set themselves apart from the masses. Rather than blending in, they willingly stick out, speak up, and stand apart. For those who can’t easily find their place at Duke, who don’t think they should have one particular group, who fit precisely nowhere yet can get along with nearly everyone, the Coffeehouse is like the Island of Misfit Toys, with prouder, self-proclaimed misfits.

Tarpey, for example, doubles as both a fraternity brother and this year’s Coffeehouse general manager. By the time he finishes sound check, a number of guests have wandered in—some students, but predominately Durham locals. “It’s very refreshing to see people from Durham actually come here and interact with us,” says Saffe. The Coffeehouse is one of the few on-campus locations where this happens. “It’s a really nice reminder that there is a world outside of [Duke],” adds Karim, “which I think is necessary.”

As the house lights dim, the first of three bands takes the stage and strums the opening song. Tarpey has turned the soundboard over to sophomore Sharrin Manor, who gazes warily over the cryptic matrix of knobs and tiny blinking lights. A rookie at sound, it’s her first time in charge. She flounders to quiet a shriek of feedback and struggles to correct the brightness of the stage lights.

The floor thumps with bass and the reserved foot-tapping of audience members, mostly hip twenty-somethings. Coffeehouse staffers are less inhibited, scurrying from the counter to serve caffeine-craving customers, then to the entrance to take admittance fees, and then to the sound booth to adjust a spotlight, bopping and dancing freely to the music all the while.

By the time the third act begins to sing, Manor has figured out the soundboard. When the Estonian asks for blue light, Manor conjures it easily, her bare feet shuffling to the music. “The bands are understanding,” she says. “They know we’re just kids.” From the floor, Feilich signals a thumbs up and grins from the edge of the sound booth. “I’m getting better at this!” exclaims Manor.

“The Coffeehouse rules!” the headliner shouts, dissolving the final synth. “I wish I was a student again!” 

The main lights snap on, and once again the Coffeehouse is just a coffeehouse. The last of the crowd melts away, and the bands pack their gear, while staffers wrap microphone cords, sort recycling, and rinse mugs in the sink. Despite the late hour, the students appear in jubilant spirits when they finally depart for dorms and apartments, though it’s the coffee-scented sanctuary that feels most like home.

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.