Into the Umisphere

We favour coffeehouses that feed the soul. This is, after all, an artistic inquiry, and art is about soul. Umi, on Chinatown's fringes at Somerset and Percy, satisfies.

You can often discern much about coffee joints from their design ethos. (So much depends/on a red wheelbarrow...*) Starbucks artfully camouflages a cookie-cutter tendency, yet all outlets bear the stamp of centralized corporate design dicta. Second Cup, ditto except on a smaller budget. Locally, Bridgehead differentiates itself with a slightly self-conscious blend of environmental hipness and industrial cool, shifting its semi-standard palette of design elements from outlet to outlet.

Umi is a bohemian one-off (our blog friend Robin K gently labels it 'screwy'), mainly pouring very good Central American beans (decafs are fresh-pulled Americanos). Gauzy deep blue drapes set off sunset orange walls. There's a library of well worn books, odd potted plants, a counter with a view onto the street (and into the Tang Coin Laundry). Wall art blends ironic feather-bedaubed black velvet with more serious oils. An aged white piano is in one corner, a neat stack of amplifiers and microphone stands in another, for weekend open stages. The effect is more chaotic than in the big chains, and yet, for us, more comfortably lived-in. The look is of evolving creativity.

People who go out to drink coffee, we find, gravitate toward reflections of their mental self-images. Of a morning, you'll find the well-dressed "grab some jet fuel and swoosh downtown to work" types at Second Cup and Starbucks. Table customers' lappies tend to be Windows machines. Those at Bridgehead tend to dress in earthier fashionable garb and often linger a bit longer, lined up with their backs to the walls to better display their mating plumage: white MacBooks, MacBook Pros for alpha types.

Uminauts can sometimes observe daring new mommies with ute-strollers, speaking of their husbands' rises in the Tory hierarchy, but the Umi look biases heavily toward 'urban artist'. Clothes are fashionable after their own fashion, but often not in the sense of any current designer other than the wearer. Laptops are in evidence, but there's less emphasis on WiFi Wanker brand flashing. From a scuffed duffle a riotgrrl may pull out a machine swathed in asymmetrical duct tape, as much to nullify a logo as to to strap it together.

Feeding one's soul aside, actual food items also reflect differing sensibilities. Starbucks caters to a distressing Americanized proclivity to vastly oversweeten everything, and make it huge. Bridgehead's treats are less sickly sweet, and sandwiches comprise earthy breads and creative fillings, often vegetarian. Umi's do too. But the real grabbers are the unassuming looking little dark chocolate with jalapeƱo cookies, in a basket near the cash register. They set off coffee in a way that is liable to knock your socks off if you care about details. We do.

Umi's open stages bear mention: they're higher-energy than any similar events we've seen in years. Artists and sell-out crowds are bright-eyed yet relaxed. Bands, soloists, poets and other spoken word artists, in any style you want, and just about all of it exciting and good. We like that musicians and crowds separated by less than a metre interact freely, supportively and humourously. We like that poets are applauded with loud finger-snapping. We like that Umi's counter staff can be coaxed out to perform a very credible spoken word/urban music rap. We also like the fact that everybody there, performer and watcher, is palpably excited about new art being made in real time. Umi is a hot medium. That's cool by us.

1 comment:

Pandora said...

well done, mr. coyote!