Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

A Great Strange Dream

Mike Conley is espousing his goals for Kafe Kerouac, the off-campus-but-not-campus-like coffee/club house. Keep the doors open, pay the bills, make sure the employees are compensated reasonably…it’s a pretty standard spiel for a small business owner. Except Mike isn’t the owner. He’s a regular. Well, technically, he’s both. Other Owner Mike (Heslop), the guy who fashioned this quirky little outpost a decade ago, sold him a share (one share) in the company a few years back, a circular customer/investor strategy that is perfectly emblematic of the coffee shop/bar/performance space/book store/concert venue/game room that has become the incubator for much of Columbus’s creative inspiration these last 10 years. Is there coffee? Yes. And it’s decent. But that’s hardly the point. Where else can you buy some local records, casually “check out” a book or two from the shop’s massive shelves, squeeze in a quick game of Dr. Mario on Super NES, all before you check out a poetry marathon or take in a music show with a few two-dollar cans of Stroh’s? Well, maybe a really cool uncle’s house, but even he would kick you out after more than a few hours. Heslop serves as the cool uncle to many in Kerouac’s legion. He chartered the Kerouac plan back in 2004, lamenting what he saw as the disappearance of coffee shop classics in Columbus like the venerable Insomnia. Beyond that, he knew it was a job that would keep him intellectually stimulated and entertained. “It’s a family atmosphere AND an educated atmosphere,” he said. “I love it because I get to hang out with all these different types of people all day long and talk English, or economics, or mathematics, or something else someone is getting their doctorate in. I always say we have the most over-educated barista staff in town.” Any potential pretension is diffused by the staff there, which often overlays with the regular customers. You don’t have to know someone to feel comfortable at Kerouac, but you probably wouldn’t be there if you weren’t looking for some of the same things Heslop was. “I consider us an alternative space for everyone else,” he said. “It’s not your average mainstream place. You’ve got to be a certain kind of person just to walk in the door.” And many that have walked through the door have hung around for years. If Kerouac were a high school, its yearbook would be filled with creative Columbus all-stars, from local baker Nina Hernandez to The Dick and Jane Project to comedian Zachariah Baird to musicians like Andrew Graham & The Swarming Branch or The Dewdroppers. All belong to Kerouac by some extension. “There are moments that happen to me on a weekly basis where I see a bunch of people just clicking, and I think, ‘Man, that’s cool.’ I get to do this,” Heslop said. “I don’t make a lot of money doing this, but I get to do something that someone appreciates. “There is no better thing in life than to create stuff, and by creating a little joint in one neighborhood, people can rally around it. And if you get old enough, in this transient part of the city, after a while people can’t remember when you weren’t there. You’re a staple, all of a sudden, a mainstay.” Or, at the very least, a shop that not only has kept the doors open (thus keeping the Mikes happy), but has added its own voice to the conversation in an era where indie coffee joints have gone the way of the dodo. “There’s something to be said for longevity,” Heslop smiles, ending our interview to tend to a new customer. “You don’t have to be the fastest guy in the group; you just can’t be the slowest.” •

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.

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