Quick, what words pop into your mind when I say “coffee house”?
Did you think of Starbucks? Pumpkin lattes? Cold brew? Okay, now step into my time machine, set the dial to 1960, and transport yourself to Saratoga Springs, New York. What do you see?
There’s a two-story brick building on Phila Street, a red awning over a narrow door, an even narrower staircase leading up to the second floor, a room with chairs and tables and a small stage, a couple of long-haired folks carrying their guitars up the stairs, and a woman with a dark bun holding the door open for them. Her name is Lena.
You are standing outside of Caffè Lena, probably the oldest continuously open coffee house in America. And by coffee house, I mean the legendary spot referred to by the New York Times in 2013 as “Folk Music Heaven.” It’s where Bob Dylan tried out some new songs in the early 60’s, and where musicians, poets, and other performers continue to keep the place in business.
Lena and Bill Spencer opened the place in 1960. Lena’s warm hospitality kept it going after her husband left. It seems that Lena struggled to make ends meet but was always generous toward the folk musicians that she hired, one time paying Don McLean (who wrote and recorded the song, “American Pie”) $300 instead of the promised $150 because he “did so well.” Sadly, Lena Spencer died in a fall down the narrow stairs in 1989, but Caffè Lena lives on.
As of today, a total of 35,231 artists have performed there over the years. I had the pleasure of attending a show at the coffee house last July, and I saw two amazing musicians (Happy Traum and Del Rey). I hope to get back there again soon. If you want to learn more about the history of Caffè Lena, I recommend reading “Caffè Lena, Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse,” by Jocelyn Arem.