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Life in the Espresso Lane : Diverse Worlds Come Together at Coffee House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A change is taking place on East Second Avenue in Escondido. A Greenwich Village-style coffeehouse called The Metaphor Coffee House and Gallery has cropped up in this town better known for its cowboys than its cappuccino.

Espresso in Escondido? The kind that is made to order with pressurized water and served in thick pottery cups?

Yes, yes, it’s all true, from the Kafka on the bookshelves to the cafe mocha served at the counter. The Metaphor is a unique animal in inland North County.

James Nemish opened the Metaphor three months ago, after a year of indecision. An Escondido businessman since 1970, Nemish had reservations about whether the generally conservative community was ready for a little espresso elan.

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“I don’t think this would have worked in Escondido three years ago, or even two years ago,” said the 48-year-old hairstylist turned cappuccino crusader. “I’m not sure it will work today.”

But, when the dry-cleaning business next door to his East 2nd Avenue hair salon became available, he knew he couldn’t pass up the chance. It was impossibly convenient--countless times a day between haircuts he slips through a connecting door to supervise his new venture--and he really wanted a place where people could have fun without alcohol.

“It seems to me that there’s got to be somewhere you can go and have a good time without drinking and getting drunk,” Nemish said. “You live by example. If I wanted a beer and wine license, I could get one. I just don’t want it.”

Nemish doesn’t advertise because he fears the coffeehouse will get so commercial it will lose its focus and its “kicked-back, relaxed” atmosphere. Nevertheless, word of mouth about the Metaphor has spread throughout North County.

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“This is the biggest thrill I’ve ever had,” Nemish said. “This is the first time ever we are drawing people from the coast. I think it’s because we have something good to offer, we’re not just another place.”

On a good day, Nemish sells about 40 espressos. On his best day, when he was open from 7 a.m. to midnight, he made $196.

“Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to make some money someday, but we’re not doing this for money,” he said. “I wanted to do something for all the kids who say there is nothing for them to do.”

Visitors to the Metaphor will first note a swath of new, designer concrete sidewalk in front of the cafe. The front door is painted to resemble a psychedelic flashback.

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A kind of non-threatening, artsy ambience is as pervasive as the rarefied scent of espresso. Almost every inch of wall space is host to paintings of nudes, bowls of fruit and trees.

An artist all his life, Nemish has created most of the work displayed at the cafe, but he is quick to share his meager wall space with other promising local artists. “We’re trying to give everybody a chance who wants a chance,” he said.

There are several secondhand, dark wood tables scattered throughout the coffeehouse and even more red metal folding chairs. (“I get them for $8.88 at Target,” Nemish confided.) Some of the nicer chairs in the front by the window were given to Nemish in exchange for haircuts.

Many of the books that line one of the walls in the front of the coffeehouse come from Nemish’s personal library at home or are donated by customers. An avid reader could have a field day with “The Body Has a Head,” by Gustav Eckstein, or “Computers in Business: An Introduction,” by Donald A. Curtiss.

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The cafe is also amply stocked with several board games, including backgammon and Battleship. For those who like to dabble in the occult, there is a Ouija board.

A chalkboard above the espresso machines outlines a brief, handwritten menu that includes the lattes and au laits and mochas. The Metaphor does sell some food, such as rugulach and cookies and even Quaker’s instant oatmeal, but there are few plans to expand on that, Nemish said.

The espresso aside, the Metaphor really specializes in friendly vibrations. Nemish’s sons and friends help out behind the counter, and customers often bring in little friendship tokens, like the four avocados lying next to the creamer on the counter.

Businessmen in suits and ties can be found chatting amiably with young bohemians with pierced noses and long, jet-black hair. And ever-talkative Nemish doesn’t leave anyone alone for long.

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From his station behind the bar, Nemish makes a point of saying hello to everyone who walks through the cafe’s door. Invariably he knows their name.

“My hope is that anyone who walks in here is going to feel comfortable,” Nemish said. “You can be completely anonymous in some coffeehouses, but I doubt if you could be anonymous in here without somebody saying something to you.”

The diverse congeniality is amplified on Friday and Saturday nights when Nemish hauls out a microphone and lets anyone who wants to do their thing, be that reading poetry, telling a joke, or playing a musical instrument. People will sit on the paint-splattered cement floor in the back room and focus their attention on the “stage,” a metal stool perched on two worn strips of Persian rug.

“We’ll have everything in here from a guy who looks like a farmer cowboy to someone with the spikiest punk hair in the world all sitting together,” Nemish said. “As long as they’re in here, for some reason they’re able to talk to each other. I’m not sure if those same people, out on the streets, would even talk to each other.”

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Music is a big part of what the Metaphor is all about, Nemish said. There are impromptu jam sessions almost every night, and Nemish regularly schedules promising local groups.

The mike is open to folk and bluegrass groups on Wednesday night. Nemish is also trying to organize a live jazz night for Thursdays.

“I set up a microphone and speakers, and the groups bring in their equipment,” Nemish said. “We might do anything from heavy Euro-rock one night to Peter, Paul and Mary the next.”

METAPHOR CAFE

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258 E. 2nd Ave., Escondido

Calls: 489-8890

Hours: Monday through Saturday. Opens 7 a.m., closes between 8 p.m. and midnight, depending on how long the jam sessions go.

Price: $1.85 for espresso. No extra charge for games, conversation or entertainment.

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Take note: Open-mike folk and bluegrass on Wednesday evenings; varied open-mike entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights.


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