Just last year an article in the New York Times
praised Vox Pop Café for brewing up some of the city’s most delicious fair trade coffee for its Brooklyn residents, calling it “a kind of hipster seal of approval.” But somehow, amidst the attention awarded to the growing popularity of the fair trade label, the café’s complete and official name—Vox Pop Café: Books, Coffee, Democracy
—went ignored. The article said,
“But perhaps more important than the knitting classes and band performances that establish the business as a kind of community center is its coffee, proudly described on well-placed signs and on the menu as “fair trade” brews.”
Though great for the fair trade movement, it’s also unfortunate considering their message of community and democracy extends far beyond tasty sustainable coffee. Things may change, however, especially in the hopeful era of President-elect Obama. With the sudden emergence of political thought among so many previously uninvolved Americans, Vox Pop Café, might finally receive the recognition its founder, Sander Hicks, originally set out to achieve—Books, Coffee, Democracy.
At first glance, one might assume that Vox Pop houses an angry bunch of Olberman-watching left-wing socialists. And well, they wouldn’t be far off. “It’s a place where ‘the right’ and ‘the left’ come together and the left ultimately wins,” Hicks said, laughing. Sarcasm aside, it’s undoubtedly a café for the people (it’s Latin shorthand translates to “voice of the people”).
With a soothing décor that mirrors New York’s autumn colors, it is a quaint neighborhood spot that anyone could fall in love with. There is free Wi-Fi, books for sale, you can even pick up their self-published paper—New York Megaphone—a progressive tabloid paper revealing New York’s government corruption while promoting the local alternative movements. There’s also a self-publishing center right next door—Publish Yourself—where Vox Pop has provided low-cost book printing and publishing services to roughly 600 new authors.
The café also hosts daily live events—story-hour for pre-schoolers, open-mic nights, game nights, stand-up comedy (Laughs from the Left), and Jazz Jams. Wine and draught beer are proudly served, as with the currently featured beer—“Hop Obama”—made locally by Six Point Craft Ales in Brooklyn.
The New York Times got it right calling it a community center. It’s a coffee house of sorts that has experienced a surge of success—September sales jumped 5.3%, despite the slow economy. And earlier this year, Hicks opened a second Vox Pop Café in Manhattan spreading “books, coffee, democracy” to his neighboring Manhattanites.
There is, however, one thing missing, in Hicks’s opinion. When he first opened (four years ago), he hosted a series of evening debates hoping to incite argumentative, yet smart, political dialogue. But that didn’t last. His customers were more interested in the food, so he expanded the menu. Then he realized that food and beverage sales acquired from live music events far outweighed the sales produced from brief political debates where customers simply returned home afterwards. But Hicks isn’t discouraged: he intends to reignite political discussion among and for his customers.
But perhaps that’s not what his customers want. Perhaps they have already spoken, choosing not to hear “the right” debate “the left.” Perhaps he’s experiencing all too well the repercussions of President-elect Obama’s inspiring rhetoric—a microcosm of a new era—that Americans strive beyond cultural divides. They might just want a comfortable place to enjoy great coffee.
It’s true. Vox Pop’s selection of fair trade coffee is really that good. And in the larger cultural context, the cafe is important to our food community because it exhibits another example of how food and drink are vehicles for social and political ideals. It’s a timely message that shouldn’t get lost among the food, regardless of how great it tastes.
Vox Pop’s full name of “Books, Coffee, Democracy” deserves wider recognition. As the name suggests, it is the consumers who shape its meaning, one that will continue to evolve as we progress in the days to come.