Reduce, reuse, recaffeinate

Everything starts somewhere—and in the Backstory Café’s case, almost everything started somewhere else. Opened in Woodlawn last week, at first glance the place seems like any other coffee shop around the U of C. On a Monday afternoon the shop isn’t particularly busy, but a half-dozen patrons type on laptops or murmur conversations over single-serve coffee from Metropolis (all brewed to order using a special slow-filter method—no big pots of drip in this establishment) or fresh soup. One undergraduate pores over a stack of books on the ancient Near East. Photographs depicting couples in stark landscapes from the series The Imp of Love by Rachel Herman, MFA’06, decorate the brick walls. Near a shelf in the corner, which holds used books gleaned from Powell’s and available for perusal and purchase, two other students leaf through Slavoj Žižek’s Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2005), discussing the chapter titles. But in Backstory, the books aren’t the only things reused.

Almost everything in the café is recycled and sustainable. The interior was designed by members of the Experimental Station, which hosts the café, and Material Exchange, a collective including several recent Chicago MFAs that repurposes cast-off materials from art exhibits, museums, and other cultural venues for both functional and artistic practices. Material Exchange recycled some of the tables from a Museum of Science and Industry exhibit and built others using leftover pine panels from the Art Institute’s Sharp Building—the same pine was used for the huge storage cabinet tucked in the corner. Maple from tabletops at a South Loop factory became the trash receptacle and part of the wood trim around the windows and doors. Even the decorative blackboards—which bear the scribbles of children and phrases like “if you want to go somewhere, come here!”—are recycled from a 2007 Hyde Park Art Center exhibit.

Backstory, which bills itself as a “café, infoshop, bookstore,” offers a place to gather, eat, and learn for both Woodlawn and Hyde Park by virtue of its 61st and Blackstone location. Owners Sara Black, MFA’06, and Saadia Shah are planning events to introduce Backstory to its community, including a film series—specific details to come. In its first week, says employee Chris Willard, the shop has drawn patrons including community gardeners and construction workers on projects south of the Midway. Backstory has hosted “a mix of customers from Woodlawn and from Hyde Park,” he notes, “the most relaxed, most friendly customers” he’s ever served. Maybe it’s the sustainable environment—or maybe it’s the prospect of a steady supply of fresh-roasted, hot coffee.

Rose Schapiro, '09

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Photos (left to right): Customers check out the used books; visitors have decorated the blackboard; the café offers tons of treats.

July 2, 2008