The Beat: A day inside Downtown’s communal new coffeehouse

The Beat Coffee House, Monday, November 1st, 2010
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Monday, October 18, 2010, 11:17 a.m. The cutest couple ever is standing on the northwest corner of the intersection, waiting for a chance to cross safely. Their arms are wrapped around each other, and they’re grinning like mad. She’s a punk-rock chick; he’s wearing jester pants. I don’t get the clothes, but they are definitely in love.

The cappuccino I bought 20 minutes ago cost me four bucks, but the people-watching? That’s on the house. Right now it’s a cute couple without explanation. In the next 10 hours it will be a parade of other Downtown characters: blue-collar residents, notable movers and shakers from the white-collar community, wide-eyed tourists stopping to peer through the glass back at observers like me, blurry-eyed tourists with foot-tall novelty glasses they can’t see past, street performers and a steady stream of police and security—only one of which rides a Segway.

The Beat Coffeehouse

You’d be surprised by how much there is to see here at the corner of Fremont and Sixth. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Guess it depends on how in touch you are with Downtown. Either way, a seat at the Beat is the perfect place to soak it all in.

The independently owned coffeehouse is something of an anomaly in Las Vegas, even for Downtown. It opened earlier this year dedicated to supporting local businesses and determined to be a casual meeting place for locals. The coffee comes from Colorado River Roasters, a Boulder City-based company, and Chef Andy Knudson, co-owner Jennifer Cornthwaite and friends handcrafted the menu themselves.

As the front piece of the corner’s Emergency Arts complex, the Beat functions as a gateway to a few small galleries and artist workspaces, as well as the Burlesque Hall of Fame and a small library that includes a section dedicated to local zines. It’s also the unofficial new clubhouse for the crowd keeping the collective Downtown culture going. Oh, and it doubles as a bar at night.

Yes, the Beat feels a bit off-key from most of what this city has to offer, but its tune is a welcome one nonetheless. That’s the takeaway after 10 straight hours at one of its cozy tables.

12:22 p.m. That cappuccino did nothing for me. I need a nap.

Peanut butter, Jelly, Bacon, and Jalapeno sandwich at The Beat Coffee House, Monday, November 1st, 2010

12:27 p.m. A man with a handheld radio walks by, dancing. He doesn’t give the coffeehouse a second glance. He’s got his own beat.

12:35 p.m. A golf cart drives down the Fremont Street sidewalk. No, not on the street.

1:41 p.m. A bro-dude attempts to karate-chop a pigeon in the crosswalk.

2:00 p.m. Lunchtime. I go with a PB&J & bacon sandwich. I’m a bacon-hater usually, but this I can do. Sweet. Savory. Strange.

There is no shortage of sensory delights at the Beat. The likes of Zappa and The Beatles play on vinyl. An assortment of amusing postcards for purchase lies on a counter. Beneath those are shelves of used books you might find at a Goodwill store—books about the economy, novels with generic Fabios on the cover, how-to-guides for HTML code.

The Beat Coffee House, Monday, November 1st, 2010

But among the mind-wandering fodder, important things are happening. Almost everyone who comes in seems to know Cornthwaite, who has been here since the coffeehouse opened at 7 this morning.

This brings us to urban gaming, the act of playing tag or going on a treasure hunt inside a big city. A Vegas transplant begins reminiscing about games of capture the flag back in the Midwest. She tried to start a meet-up group out here; fewer than half a dozen people showed up. “You don’t know the right people,” Cornthwaite responds with a smile. She’s only half joking, and from her mental Rolodex she begins rattling off Downtowners who might be interested in helping host capture the flag on Fremont Street. Cornthwaite has never heard the term “urban gaming,” but she loves it, exclaiming, “We will make this happen!”

A man in the corner, who has been quietly grading papers, turns around to interject his approval. He would sooo go to that. The Midwesterner is all smiles now. “This is why they invented coffee shops,” she says. “Good things happen.”

4:52 p.m. Two members of the Downtown Beautification crew walk by, picking up litter. One of them is chomping on a pork rind. Not so beautiful.

5:43 p.m. The blinking lights of the El Cortez have just turned on.

The transition between day and night happens slowly. The light fades, the sign comes on at Mamita’s Mexican restaurant down the street. The flashing signs for the popular bars across Fremont come on even later.

Inside, the transition is almost unnoticeable. No disco ball descends from the ceiling. No DJ booth erects itself. Instead, the chef merely takes note of the time, 7 p.m., and the coffeehouse’s temporary tavern license kicks in so it can begin selling beer and wine.

The Beat Coffeehouse, November 1, 2010

Coffee patrons listen to poetry readings during open mic night at The Beat Coffee House, Monday, November 1st, 2010

Twilight brings more people—dozens more, actually—but they aren’t here for the booze. They’re here for the Human Experience, an open-mic poetry event held at the Beat every Monday from 7 to midnight.

Started some two years ago by DJ Miss Joy, in search of a non-DJ creative outlet, the Human Experience has traveled through different venues across town, most recently at Forbes, a lounge on Decatur near Chinatown. Folks turned out wherever the Experience happened, but past venues never felt quite right. Some were overly pushy about attendees buying liquor, others simply didn’t offer a welcoming atmosphere.

The great thing about the Beat is that its owners don’t worry about their bottom line, Human Experience host Jeffrey Bennington says. Here they emphasize community, and nothing exemplifies that more than the Human Experience. Poetry, prose and songs come one after another, from people as different as their performances. An established local poet chats with me about his days sharing his work at the long-defunct Enigma Cafe on Maryland. A timid newcomer admits she’s never shared her poetry in front of a live audience before. There’s a perfectly timed poem about Pong and freestyle rap inspired by the Experience itself.

Strangers passing by stop often to gaze at the makeshift stage near the window. Maybe they’re checking to see if someone famous is inside. They invariably retreat, back to the surrounding tourist traps and liquor distributors. If it weren’t for them—the tourists with their plastic footballs filled with beer—you might forget you were in Vegas at all from inside the Beat. But, really, places like this do exist here. At least, one does—now.

7:52 p.m. The cute couple has returned! She looks the same but he … is now painted silver. A mime? Nah, he’s begun talking to her. Still in love, I surmise, as everything comes full circle.


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