Mention Boulder, Colorado, and what springs to mind? To Outside
magazine, whose editors recently voted Boulder the "number one sports
in America," it's topnotch outdoor recreation. Indeed, hikers and
explore two-hundred miles of public trails, while the walker can amble
a sixteen-mile tree-shaded footpath running through the center of town.
being particularly sports-minded, on my summer 2003 trip I sought out
Specifically, I wanted to discover if Boulder retained the Bohemian
flavor I remembered from a visit ten years ago, or if it had become
"Starbuckized" -- orderly and standard with no room for variety. A decade
individuality predominated. Boulder was always a stop on the route for
characters with bizarre dress codes that provoked bemused stares rather
Had the death of Allen Ginsberg, international king of Bohemians,
diminished the local alternative scene? Since the mid-1970's, his
presence had spurred creative activity at Boulder's Naropa
Institute (now University) by attracting students from all over America and Europe.
Happily, in still-compact Boulder, I could walk everywhere. And eat
delicious restaurants with bargain-priced lunch buffets, lounge in
cafes, or drink in wine bars offering European and American vintages.
were definite amenities, but were they signs of gentrification? Had the
unpretentious hangouts that made up for in spirit what they lacked in
To unearth the genus and species known as Bohemians, I trekked
the Pearl Street Mall to investigate a likely local habitat: the independent
Bustling with customers, the Boulder Bookstore sponsors a regular
series. Local authors, along with stars reviewed in the New York Times,
featured. On my second night in town, I attended a reading by an author
offering tips on how to handle the singles' scene. Not the most likely
to bring out the sandal-wearers, but I had to start somewhere.
The speaker gave an amusing presentation, which provoked questions
the audience -- a mix of age groups dressed in shorts and T-shirts.
sold his books, I approach a young woman whose spiky hairdo, tattooed arms
long, pointed red fingernails were promising. Respectfully, I introduced
myself to Karen, whose friendliness emboldened me to inquire if there was
funky cafe or bar nearby.
Abashed, she peers at me suspiciously. "I'm a business major at
CU (University of Colorado)," she blurted out. "Do I look like I'd waste my
in crummy places where they smoke dope?" Unceremoniously, she turned her
on me, went up front to buy a book, then left the room. Oh well, I
just as you can't judge a book by its cover, you can't tell Bohemians by
their outward trappings. I had seven more nights left to unearth the genuine
In Boulder, all roads lead to the Pearl Street Mall, which extends
a mile. Bustling day and night, locals intermingle with tourists, and meet
greet each other. I explored this mini-village, chain stores mostly
absent. Small merchants purvey unusual items, many of ethnic origin.
then, bizarrely dressed characters stroll by.
I contemplate approaching these eye-catching individuals to inquire
Boulder harbors others of their kind. Instead, forsaking my New York
aggressiveness, I slide into the leisurely Boulder rhythm to watch
and spoken word performers entertain lunchtime shoppers. Spontaneous
the busker tradition, from fire eaters to puppeteers to
contortionists enliven my late evenings on the mall.
One afternoon, hiking along the mall, I make a discovery: the Penny
coffeehouse at 1795 Pearl Street. Mixed into the crowd outside are
bearded, long-haired men, and women in peasant style dresses --
that I may have stumbled on a Bohemian refuge. Nearby, two bookstores
this end of the mall with an intellectual cachet: Borders, with a cafe
its own, and, a few doors away from Penny Lane, another small one that
in Beat generation authors.
At Penny Lane's sidewalk cafe, patrons sprawl on chairs, read, chat,
table hop. Dogs and cats wander around, adding their barks and mews to
steady buzz of conversation. I immediately ask for the person
for this oasis of indolence. Penny Lane's proprietor, Isidore Million,
forward to shake my hand, with a boxer's grip. Of Ukrainian-Jewish
Isidore keeps a benevolent eye on the proceedings.
A retired geologist, these days Isidore
with Bohemian human specimens. Being a septuagenarian hasn't diminished
vivacity, evident in belly laughs that erupt unexpectedly. A cross
Father Time and a Munchkin, after world wide travels he appreciates the
relaxed pace at which things move in Boulder.
Isidore's laissez-faire management style does not prohibit him from
ejecting a troublemaker if necessary. He tells me stories about patrons
mistook his tolerance for negligence. They learned the hard way not to
certain boundaries. Isidore proudly guides me through Penny Lane
large room furnished with a variety of unmatched chairs.
Most of the furniture purchased from the Salvation Army is
enough -- despite lumps here and there -- to doze on. Floor lamps scattered
around provide light for readers. Customers order drinks (no food or
alcoholic beverages) at a counter. Revolving exhibitions of local
create an informal gallery atmosphere.
Penny Lane's helter-skelter quality humanizes the large space. A
Isidore welcomes regulars by name with a hearty handshake. At Penny
Lane the patrons' preoccupations are time-honored. For example, a Monday night
series, in place for fifteen years, gives neophyte writers exposure to
Scheduled to start at eight p.m., poets, many pierced and/or tattooed
the current mode, trickle in all evening. Amateurs of all ages take the
stage to share their latest compositions. Male and female alike,
two works per person, are heartily applauded by friends in the
Some Mondays, established touring poets, like Andy Clausen, are featured
the open reading.
While teaching at Naropa University, Allen Ginsberg read himself
regularly brought his students to share their new creations. Isidore
remembers Ginsberg's generosity, his habit of mixing with the crowd,
clapping robustly after his students performed. One memorable night
Ginsberg, accompanying himself on the harmonium, recited poems by
Ginsberg's masterful performance. The next day, he purchased several of
Ginsberg's books at the Beat bookstore. Ginsberg dropped into Penny
often, for he appreciated its lack of "attitude." Its easygoing ambience
throwback to popular coffeehouses in the fifties: Vesuvio's in San
Francisco, the Borgia in New York.
Since Isidore puts in a full day, he leaves before the reading
into high gear. Of all the poets in the lineup, the tenth reader, Ted
Mulraney, radiates an offbeat "star quality." His self-confidence,
with a resonant voice, silences the perpetual undercurrent of
While he reads, nobody leaves or table hops.
Ted wears rainbow-colored, mismatched clothes, a turban of rags
his head. Obviously sartorial refinements are a low priority.
Ted's poems, in poignant, simple language, about life on the road, and the
adventure and trials of daily survival in an indifferent universe, are
evening's high point.
Afterward, curious to know more about Ted, I approach him.
As he retrieves his worldly possessions stuffed into a backpack tucked
a table, he speaks in rapid fire sentences as though a timeclock is
ticking. His pack will later become a pillow out on the mall, as he curls up nightly in a shop
doorway or another empty spot.
A crew of young itinerants bunk with Ted. True to Boulder's laid
style, the police overlook these latter day hippies from all over
Not entirely idle, occasionally the hippies panhandle or play music.
a mere bagatelle to Ted: he's on a mission to be as "Beat" as his idol Jack
Kerouac, whose ghost hovers above Penny Lane.
Poets read and depart, but the poetry coordinator Tom Peters has
missed a night in the last fifteen years. Tall and dark-haired with a
muscular build, he resembles Kerouac. When I ask Tom what motivates him
show up week after week, he pauses thoughtfully, then answers: "It's my
love affair with language, the thrill of finding an extraordinary new
like Ted's in the lineup." As animated as the fledgling poets whom he
encourages, Tom is an encyclopedia of Beat literary lore.
Tom acts as Master of Ceremonies, sets up the microphone, and
troubleshoots. His meticulous attention to detail insures that each
will be heard under optimum conditions. His Monday night series
diverse audience: from students at CU to construction workers to shy
sharing their lifetime of experience. Every year Tom devotes one Monday
night to honor Kerouac. Appropriately, Tom works in the Beat bookstore.
Poetry only accounts for one night of Penny Lane's activities.
other evening also hums, either with "open stage" individual music
performances, popular bands or comic acts. Since Bob Dylan once played
Penny Lane, this is a consecrated space to hopeful minstrels with big
dreams. Would-be Dylans and Patti Smiths perform their hearts out.
Passionately strumming guitars, they sing their own compositions, either
lamenting or celebrating the world around them.
During my nights at Penny Lane, the scene outdoors rivals the
performances. Since the tables on the patio usually are all taken,
spill onto the sidewalk. The rambunctious crowd seems to be high on
conversation. If alcohol or drugs contribute to the merriment, neither
out in the open. Under the star-studded Boulder sky, a few couples
singles flirt or mix from group to group. Addresses of parties are
from hand to hand. Motorcycles, their leather-clad riders checking out
action, buzz up to the curb. A quick look, and then they mostly move on to
Away from the party-minded actively making social connections, in a
corner of the patio, a bearded, professorial looking fellow holds court.
quorum of intent young people hang on his words. Moving closer, I
him criticize American involvement in the Iraq war. The next night, he
discusses global warming, the next gay marriage. Occasionally, someone
interrupts the speaker or goes off on a tangent, which provokes a few
turbulent interchanges that flare up then die down. This veritable
university, with participants coming and going, continues after Penny Lane
for the night.
Traffic at Penny Lane flows as freely as the ideas discussed. The
is inclusive, not exclusive. There is no "list" to siphon off
or any dress code enforced. After a few days, I settle into my favorite
armchair like a regular. I happily share my adopted living room with
appreciative of camaraderie and conversation.
In a world where commerce is king, Penny Lane proves that a
establishment can be compatible with human values. A hangout in the
Bohemian tradition Allen Ginsberg epitomized, Penny Lane is both
and mellow. It passes the litmus test that made the classic coffee-
centers of artistic creativity. Isidore's offbeat enterprise carries on
old tradition, but with a twenty-first century Boulder twist.
©2004 by Barbara Foster