Paradox Regained

While the brick-and-mortar institution known as the Paradox seems to have existed since the dawn of time, the history of coffee shops on campus is much stranger than the history books (or in this case student body handbooks) would lead one to believe. To understand that fateful eve, in the summer of ’83, when the idea of the Paradox Café was hatched, one must dig deep into the annals of Reed.

The material evidence (textual, photographic, oral, or otherwise) for Reed coffee shops fails to paint a continuous narrative. There are sizable gaps in the archives; many story beginnings but few endings. Institutional memory struggles to survive past four years and it’s not surprising that alums from the 50s don’t remember the details. What follows is a brief and incomplete account of the history of coffee shops on campus. Not all of the information in this article is or can be rigorously vetted, but hopefully it can shed a sliver of light on Olde Reed.

What’s for certain that in the 1950s a coffee shop existed in the Student Union building (no, not that Student Union). Where Vollum College Center now stands there was a massive wooden building known as the Student Union. Built entirely with student body funds, the old Student Union was home to all manner of lounges, student spaces, and organizations until the humble wood structure burned to the ground in 1969.

A small two-floor structure, the basement of the Student Union housed student mailboxes, the bookstore, and the coffee shop. With cozy booths and pine walls, the shop was well loved by students. Longtime community member Cricket Parmalee ’67 fondly remembers the atmosphere. “The heart of the campus was the chapel and the coffee shop,” she says. Students would leave conference in Eliot and rush down to the shop to continue the class discussion. At some point, before the olde SU burned down, the coffee shop transferred to what was then Commons (what is now the SU).

During the early sixties, the coffee shop stood almost exactly where the Paradox sits now. West-facing windows looked out into the bike shed under which students kept their motorcycles, among other things. The tables were small and square but could fit seven around them if people squeezed. According to Jim Kahan ’64, the coffee was “okay” — at least better than that of commons during mealtimes. For ten cents a cup and five cents for refills, the shop had a D.B.Y.O.C policy : don’t bring your own cup.  

All types frequented the shop: bridge-players, guitar-wielding folk singers, and Harley Davidson bike boys. When not continuing their conference discussions, students sung Dylan and Seeger over guitar melodies. For those with a more literary disposition, there was a magazine rack and newspapers available. One could read The New York Times, The Oregonian, and the Oregon Journal —this was long before the Willie Week or the Mercury. Kahan remembers listening to news of the Kennedy assassination in the coffee shop while crowded around a portable radio.

What is now known as the Gray Campus Center (GCC) was constructed in 1965, although the original building bares little resemblance to the red brick structure renovated in 1998. With a “new” building came a new coffee shop in the location that now covers the middle of the GCC A/B. Aside from photos and oral accounts, not much about is known about the “new” place. Photos show a diner-style space with leather booths, high windows, and old-school geeks with thick-rimmed glasses and pencil-thin neckties. If you look close enough, you can almost see the slide rules peeking out above their pocket protectors.

Gay Walker ’69 worked at the both the bookstore and the coffee shop during her time as a student. While most of her time in the shop was spent in the back cooking greasy burgers, her descriptions of the atmosphere inside the shop are eerily familiar. The place was often busy, “sometimes boisterous.” Students would come after class to continue their debates. Of course, there were certain cliques “too cool” for the place and those for whom caffeine was an unnecessary stimulant.

It is not clear how this iteration of the coffee shop came to end, but it probably either moved or was replaced in the late sixties. Following that, Reed entered a dark, uncaffeinated period: the early 70’s. Again, little is known about the coffee during this time but one can infer discontent about its troubling absence.

In late 1976, due to student and faculty pressure, the “Ad Hoc Coffee House Steering Committee” was founded in response to what could probably be characterized as groggy demands. Their proposal: a new “prototype” coffee shop in the Faculty Office Building (FOB). There’d be weekly events, in which coffee and snacks would be sold. When not in use as a coffee shop the lounge would resume its normal function.

An old WWII surplus building, the FOB was transplanted from Vancouver to Portland, and laid to rest in between what are now the library and ETC. Without another dedicated space, the FOB lounge would become the temporary coffeehouse’s home.

On January 28th, 1977, the Reed Coffeehouse open its doors promising “fine coffee & edibles” as well as performances by the Howling Gael and Jena Camp.[1] By all indications the event was a great success, but the ruckus garnered some scrutiny from staff. As would be the case many years later, the shop had to carefully share its lounge space with prized artworks.  This was, after all, long before the Cooley Gallery.

As then Director of Exhibition Charles Rhyne wrote, “it seems clear that the two functions — art gallery and coffee house — are incompatible. I wish it were not so.” By the way, Reed Special Collections & Archives is packed with these little correspondences. The Coffeehouse was eventually moved to the Student Union (the new one) but, for some reason, quickly faded into obscurity. The Faculty Office building was demolished in 1981, but an end section of the structure remains as Greywood.

After the Ad-hoc shop shut, a new player moved in: a coffee shop in the GCC where the International Students’ Office now stands. The student-run shop overlooked the canyon and had a door that led directly to the SU porch. Professor Jacqueline Dirks ’82 remembers the atmosphere in the greasy, grimy space. She says the “jukebox was a highlight, with songs from the serious to the silly: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' ‘Refugee’, and The Monkees' ‘I'm A Believer’ among others.” Professors even came to eat with students.

Sometime after the Dirk’s time, a new shop came into the picture: Enter the SAGA Corporation. A ’80s analogue to Bon Appetit, the SAGA-run coffee shop in the GCC didn’t employ student workers and — according to many — didn’t serve great coffee. Paradox founder Matt Giraud ’85, in remembering the SAGA shop, admits Bon Appetit is markedly improved. The drab décor and lack of selection in the SAGA shop made for an unsatisfying experience (and this was before the “hip coffeehouse” boom of the ’90s). An alternative was desperately needed. Giraud himself best describes his attitude at the time:

“I started the Paradox because we thought it was high time the student body had a place to call its own, free from Eliot Hall’s bureaucracy, politics, interior design, and taste in java.”

One evening in the summer of 1985 Giraud and his friend Holly O’Neil ’86 were sharing a drink at the Lutz when the idea struck them. What if there was a completely student-operated shop in SU? On “beer-soaked napkins” the Paradox was born.[2]  With help from friend Mike Magrath ’84, the three began planning. Using a scavenged espresso machine, old paint, and a refrigerator, the three were able to procure a space in the Student Union in a part-time art gallery. With a copious numbers of favors asked and I.O.Us given, the three quickly fashioned a working shop.

The Gallery Café, as it was initially called, was furnished with easily movable tables and appliances so that the space could be reverted to a gallery with just a few minutes notice. Surprisingly, Giraud received non-material support from the SAGA shop. He knew the owner of the shop and there was a tacit agreement between the two that the Café could co-exist with the other shop as long as it didn’t sell food. The Café still sold baked goods, but it seems this wasn’t a very contentious issue.

Although conceived at the Lutz in the summer, the Paradox gained its identity in the months after its first debut. The Gallery Café opened O-Week of 1985 with great success. However, lack of money, décor, and precedent forced the early employees to invent an identity. What’s the ideal coffee shop? What should it be called?

Clearly the Gallery Café needed a title that aligned with students. Possible names included: The Frisky Bean, Café Onassis, Einstein’s Bong, and a number of others too vulgar to print. It isn’t clear how, but eventually Giraud and Magrath came up with Paradox Café. It fit oddly well, in just the same way a name like Einstein’s Bong didn’t. As people flocked to the new Paradox Café for good coffee, a community quickly formed. Weekly showings of the BBC cult hit “Prisoner” aired in the Café to an audience of dozens. The shop became a hotspot on campus, and trounced the SAGA shop. It’s not clear what happened with the SAGA shop but Marriot Corp bought SAGA in 1986 for $502 million.[3] Perhaps this marked the beginning of Bon Appetit’s tenure at Reed?

In the following years the Paradox jumped from location to location within the building. From the gallery it moved to a corner where the KRRC now rests. After some time it moved to its current location in facing the Quad, displacing the once mighty Quest office to the windowless GCC basement.

Throughout the decades, all manner of coffee shops, java spots, and espresso enterprizes left their mark on the Reed landscape. As difficult as it is to imagine Reedies’ past from photos and the occasional oral account, it seems student attitudes are fixed. Some serve coffee, some stay and talk, and some are just too cool for it all. Names and locations change, but throngs of coffee drinking undergrads are a constant.

[1] The hand-calligraphed invitation letter is on file at Reed Special Collections

[2] The phrase “beer-soaked napkins” appears countless times in histories of the Café.