If you’re like me, you probably require at least three cups of coffee every day just to function. You’ve probably also, like me, lamented your empty wallet. And let’s be real, in college, who has time to actually stop and enjoy their coffee? The last time I actually sat down in the Blue Room was probably when I visited Brown as a wee pre-frosh.
But two seniors, Katie Murphy and Yousef Ali, decided to change that by starting an underground revolution – literally. The two seniors opened The Underground, an entirely student-run coffee shop in Faunce’s lower level. As a self-proclaimed coffee addict connoisseur, I got the chance to interview them about their vision.
Greg: So, Katie, what year are you? And what concentration?
Katie: I’m a senior, and contemplative studies.
Greg: Oh I love the contemplative studies department! (As you all can see I’m a SUPER professional at interviews)
Katie: Yeah, I’m so amazed that I got to the point where I found that department. I was a transfer student and I came in the first year of it being a thing at Brown, so I was new and it was new…
Greg: So what first inspired you to start the Underground?
Katie: It had a lot to do with being a transfer student. I remember during the first couple weeks of school I was trying to find a nice place to study. When I was at Hamilton, I always used to study at this place called Café Opus, [Check out this post from a student worker there!] which was a student-run coffee shop.
Greg: What did you like about it?
Katie: It was the coziest place, and it felt like the only place that felt real on campus, and was kind of an island of solace for me. I hadn’t found that here, and I was like, “Why don’t I just make one?” This space has a really cool bar and nothing really goes on down here. So Yousef, who joined me later, and I went to President Paxson and the dean of ResLife, explaining this place was our first choice.
Greg: You said you went through CPax and the Dean of ResLife, but what was the most difficult part of the process?
Katie: I mean, it was all difficult. We didn’t know where to start. She [President Paxson] was definitely the wrong person to talk to, but I’m also glad we did, because when we got her blessing, the dean was able to evaluate it with an open mind. One of the things I’ve learned about systems of power in institutions is everybody’s afraid to get in trouble with the person who’s above them.
Greg: That’s so true!
Katie: Yeah! So at least if you go downwards, everyone can evaluate it with an open mind. People who are in power tend to be more chill because they’re not afraid. [Wow, getting #deep in here] We really wanted it to be tied to Brown, too. You can leave the system and do your own thing, but one thing we wanted to do was break down the institutional wall of college public spaces. It’s not our dream space yet, but there’s no reason it can’t be in the future.
Greg: So what does the Underground mean to you?
Katie: We really wanted to create a space that inspires community. Like, upstairs, a lot of people just sit down and plug in their headphones. But we want to do some social engineering and create a big communal table and push the sofa chairs together so people are forced to sort of sit together.
“We really wanted to create a space that inspires community.”
That way you can meet people and even just have little interactions. We want a platform to connect on an individual level through conversations. And we’d really like to have something like weekly open mic nights or get gigs for bands so they can play here.
Greg: That actually brings me to my next question; where do you want it to go from here?
Yousef: We want to implement all the necessary structures and put in the gritty work for this to live on outside our influence. Kenta Nakagawa, our financial manager, is putting together a system so he can just teach someone really easily when we leave. [Kenta will be the next “leader” of the Underground and is currently their resident coffee master.]
Katie: This is really a hybrid model, and it’s unlike the economic model for any other coffee shop. It’s non-profit, we don’t pay rent. We create things by year and figure it out as we go along, which has been cool and fun. But I want to implement more social events and really develop that community. We want a wider variety of products once we get our food license.
Greg: So this is sort of a dreamer’s question, but if had all the money in the world and you could just do whatever you want with this place, what would it be?
Yousef: Our constraints don’t have to do with money, it’s the constraints on what we can do really. It would be like an exploded version of this.
Katie: We’d have sofas, armchairs, lamps, all kinds of furniture. We want a stay service, we’re really focused on the environment, so we have biodegradable cups, but we’d like people to be able to stay. I want to create a coffee shop where you can’t take things to-go. We’ll have a dishwasher soon so that can happen hopefully.
Yousef: We want more permanent art, stuff placed more substantially. And we’d get a paid staff and make our prices cheaper. The crazy thing is these are possible – we have the cheapest prices in the area [A large coffee is only $2].
Katie: You know what I love though? Look at all these people just hanging out.
Yousef: Yeah, these people didn’t even know each other before. And this isn’t only a space for customers. It’s not only a commercial relationship.
Greg: So any parting words?
Yousef: The revolution will be subsidized! And you know, this is an open space. Come, introduce yourselves.
Katie: This is a gift we’re trying to give the campus. Come use the space, if you want to be part of it, let us know.
Yousef: This comes from a really deep place, we’ve put a lot of time and work in and it’s become a really personal thing for us.
If you’ve got a minute to stop in or need a place to hang out, definitely check out the Underground for some chill vibes and hot coffee. And while you’re at it, check out these other campus shops that helped inspire this vision for Katie and Yousef: Espwesso and the Midnight Mug. Oh, and make sure to go check out their Facebook page and like it, and if you have any great ideas for how to use the space, go chat with them!