Novelist Kristopher Jansma gives us the scoop on his favorite place to write. His first book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, is an inventive, genre-bending tale of a struggling writer, his more successful best friend, and his elusive dream girl. The novel blurs the boundaries between the narrator’s life and his fictions. Here’s Jansma on the place where he did much of the work on Leopards:
At home, I have a giant dining room table that should be the perfect work place. And I mean to work there—really, I do. But the table is covered in bills, receipts, and other ephemera. Also, a few feet away from this table is the Pack N’ Play where my infant son is currently not sleeping. This paragraph has taken me an hour to write, as I got up to reinsert his pacifier every other minute.
The good news is there are 21 coffee shops within a quarter mile of my Brooklyn apartment. The bad news is that in the past year I have tried writing in nearly all without much success. The coffee is usually fine but the WiFi is wonky, or there aren’t enough outlets or light or space. Or they play the wrong genre of music at the wrong volume or—sorry. If I sound spoiled, it’s only because two years ago, I moved away from New York City’s greatest coffee-shop-cum-writing-space and have regretted it ever since.
The B Cup Café opened on the corner of East 13th Street and Avenue B shortly after I arrived in the Lower East Side. An assortment of yard sale couches and chairs filled the small space. Eclectic paintings hung crookedly on the neon-orange walls. I’d go down three times a week to work beside a hot water pipe, lovingly insulated with rough hemp. The owner, an Israeli guy (named “Guy”), looked about as nervous as I was. My wife and I worried over B Cup’s chances of survival. The coffee cost a bit too much, it took Guy ages to make a sandwich, and he didn’t take credit cards. All these little flaws only endeared it to me more. Each week I would smile at the blackboard menu, and its familiar offering of an “Avacado” sandwich.
Of course most cafés try to establish an artsy edge, with handmade furniture and quirky prints on the wall, but I’m always left with the feeling that they’re merely trying to fake the kind of roughness that comes naturally to B Cup. There’s no hand-poured Free Trade coffee or Yerba Maté tea or pastries sent in from Balthazar’s. Nothing is overtly branded. They do have a Twitter and a Facebook page, though both accounts have been used only twice, back in 2010. I have nothing against social media, for, you know, people, but I prefer my local coffee shop to be friendly, not my Friend.
B Cup is so sincere that I often wonder if the double entendre in its name was accidental. It’s hard to imagine Guy giving it a risqué name on purpose. The staff is generally him and one or two other young Israeli guys, who I imagine have only just finished their mandatory military service. I’ve never asked Guy about it, but I picture him sitting in a barracks outside Tel Aviv, watching an episode of Friends with its “Central Perk” and dreaming of someday owning a place where neighbors and artists could congregate. And I think to myself, “He’s come all this way! I owe it to him to pound purposefully at my laptop keys.” No matter that it’s all in my head. Firing up my imagination is the whole point.
Over 6 years, I became a regular at B Cup. I wrote much of my first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, there. When I sold it, Guy was one of the first people I told. When he told me his wife was pregnant, I got him a popular American baby book translated into Hebrew. After a trip to Israel, he brought me back a small mezuzah to hang outside my future child’s bedroom. When climbing rents forced us to move away, I actually apologized to him for leaving, though my sporadic purchases surely never kept his doors open, and the café has long since become a busy spot in the neighborhood.
Here in Brooklyn, my wife has noticed me going a bit stir-crazy, trying to write on my crowded table while on pacifier duty. She gave me a monthly MetroCard as an early Father’s Day gift and told me to use it only to get to B Cup. It takes me a half hour to get there on the subway, as opposed to the 5-minute walk to any of those 21 cafés in my neighborhood—but I’ve begun coming again anyway. And the WiFi doesn’t always work, and sometimes the music is a little loud. But there is something just a little more sincere on my pages after an hour spent here.