Finding Bella Union requires some exploration of Duke’s West Campus. The cafe lies secluded in Keohane Quad, away from the busy sidewalks in front of the Chapel and Brodhead Center. But once students discover the place, they often fall in love with the retro interior and menu items unavailable in other on-campus cafes, including their chocolate-coated animal crackers.
Bella Union did not have its current name until 2006. When McClendon Tower opened in 2002, the fourth floor cafe was called “Blue Devil Beanery.” The current owners of Bella Union are Sam Clowney and Rob Clay, former members of the band, Parklife, who worked part-time at the cafe from Monday to Wednesday. When the contract for Blue Devil Beanery opened in 2006, Clowney and Clay became the new owners of the coffee shop and renamed it “The Bella Union.”
Clowney first got an inspiration for the name from his favorite poem, “Autobiography” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in which the speaker recalls seeing “Saint Joan of Arc burn / at the Bella Union.” The first line of the poem, “I am leading a quiet life / in Mike’s Place every day / watching the champs of the Dante Billiard Parlor / and the French pinball addicts,” particularly fascinated Clowney as an aspiring musician.
“It just reminded me of the eccentric group of artists I looked up to when I was a college student and who I came to know as a musician, people ‘on the edge to the night,’ so to speak,” Clowney wrote in an email. “I hope that somehow I became one of them. I always dreamed of doing so.”
As Clowney and Clay looked more into the name, “Bella Union," they discovered multiple meanings that made it even more appealing.
“Particularly, one of my favorite bands, the Cocteau Twins, a sort of avant-garde, ethereal wave [and] dream pop band from the ‘80s and the ‘90s, actually formed a record label called Bella Union,” Clowney wrote. “The guitarist of that band, Robin Guthrie, ... pioneered an effect-laden guitar sound that was at the time very unconventional.”
Just like its name paying homage to young and creative artists, Bella Union’s menu stays trendy, while maintaining some staple coffee shop selections like the cafe latte. Some items like Thai tea, which is among the most popular drinks in the cafe, are not even on the menu.
“We like that these unadvertised items can become our most popular items,” Clowney wrote. “That kind of thing adds to the vibe of the shop.”
Bella Union is also notable for the framed photographs on its walls, which mostly depict the music scene in and around the Triangle in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Participating in the music scene, Clowney and Clay personally knew some of the artists and photographers in the pictures, including Scott Carle, a musician still active in Durham. A picture that is hung next to the cash register also shows Clowney and Clay themselves.
Besides having a space that reflects his experience as a musician, Clowney wrote that one of the best parts of being the owner of the coffeeshop is working and interacting with students.
“We have employed hundreds of Duke students over the years and watched them grow into adults,” Clowney wrote. “We have been so proud to see these folks blossom, and even more proud to play a part in their growth.”
Bella Union has also become a meaningful place for students, especially for groups that frequently have meetings at the cafe. Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity that holds a social event called “APO Goes to Bella,” at the café on every Thursday at 10:56 p.m., is one such student organization.
“The reason for the unusual time is unknown to any current brother, but it has become one of our chapter’s most well-known and enduring rituals,” junior Angus Li, one of the members of the fraternity, wrote in an email. “Relatively few people actually buy snacks or drinks, but Bella’s constant low-level activity and association with tradition make it a nice place to talk with a larger group of friends.”
The cafe serves as a place for the members to have conversations on anything from academics to plans for breaks and build closer relationships to each other. Because of those events, Bella Union holds a special place in the fraternity members’ memories.
“Some of my best memories with our members are at Bella,” junior Tiffany Wei, another member of the fraternity, said. “After I became a member, talking with some of the new recruits [at the cafe] formed a lot of my closest relationships within the organization.”
The social function of the space was also carefully considered when Clowney and Clay were naming the place; according to Clowney, Bella Union was also a saloon in South Dakota in the late 1800s, where town meetings were held.
“I guess ultimately that is what coffee shops came to be on some level, and what I hope the Bella Union is to Duke: a place where you can come and see ‘the champs of the Dante Billiard Parlor and the French pinball addicts,’” Clowney wrote. “We meet over coffee to discuss the events of the day, politics, our personal lives ... and maybe you will meet someone who will change your perspective.”
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