I didn’t know where the Duke Coffeehouse was when I set out to spend a night there. Somewhere on East Campus, right? I hopped off the C1 on a frigid Saturday night in mid-November and walked toward the Crowell Building, where the DukeMobile app said the Coffeehouse would be, and around to a set of black metal stairs in the back.
Upon approaching, I could make out the sound of drums, a guitar, a voice. Despite the bitter cold, three people stood outside, one taking long drags from a cigarette and blowing out smoke that was carried away by the wind. Beside them, the window emitted a lime green light reminiscent of a Disney villain’s color of choice.
Beyond the entrance, trying to talk was useless. The music—generated by a four-piece band and pumped out through large hanging speakers—filled every inch of the space, which was no bigger than a typical classroom. Just inside the door, senior Anna Cunningham checked my DukeCard, determined that I did not need to pay the $5 entry fee for non-students and waved me into the venue.
Affectionately known as “chaus” by those who frequent it, the Duke Coffeehouse was established in 1967 and continues to cater to first-years due to its location. Along with social opportunities, the venue hosts bands from a variety of genres, featuring what its website categorizes as “bangers, shredders and spirals.”
“The Coffeehouse wants to be an alternative to mainstream social culture,” said Booking Manager Will Atkinson, a senior who is also Recess managing editor, laughing. “It’s not Shooters.”
Another staff member also shared how much she appreciated the variety in performances.
“Personally, I like how diverse the range of the shows are. Honestly, [Atkinson] has killed it this year,” said sophomore barista Binisha Patel, who is also a staff reporter for The Chronicle.
The Carrboro, N.C. band Personality Cult was onstage the night I visited. The guitarist wildly picked a red electric guitar while the singer belted out words I could barely discern. Between songs, feedback from the microphone screeched at almost the same volume. There wasn’t a moment of quiet. The crowd loved it.
Roughly 70 people stood bathed in green, some cheering, some dancing, some swaying to the music. Each held a different drink: tea, coffee, beer and La Croix were among the few labels I could actually read.
Yes, beer. On East Campus. The Coffeehouse is the only place on East Campus that isn’t technically dry, instead inviting guests to bring their own drinks. This fits with the fact that many of the Coffeehouse’s patrons on concert nights are members of the Durham community, not students.
“People in Durham know Duke Coffeehouse as a really cool music venue,” Atkinson said.
The band began their last song for the night. At the back of the room, junior Hannah Genender, the sound engineer, bobbed her head to the music as she adjusted a glowing soundboard.
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“We get a really nice broad range of genres at the Coffeehouse,” Genender said. “No matter what kind of music you’re into, you should come out to something, and you may be surprised.”
The set ended with a last resonating chord from the guitar, and the house lights to match a warm coffee shop rather than a rock show. As the band filed into a doorway marked “for staff and artists only,” the walls came into view and I was able to fully take in my surroundings.
If you’ve seen it in a thrift shop or a fever dream, it’s also at the Coffeehouse. A four-foot-tall candy cane stood propped up in a corner. A red pentagram made of duct tape was stuck to the side of the fridge.
The walls were covered in murals of different colors, depicting UFOs, aliens, hands holding coffee, faces and eyes. There was also a collection of waffles dressed in costumes, including Obi Waffle Kenobi and Ziggy Waffledust.
“The walls are interesting—they speak to how long this place has been here,” Atkinson said. “Everything on the walls was probably put up at a different point in time.”
Under the waffles was a hand-drawn sign reading “Absolutely NO Makeouts,” and under that was the bar, attended by Patel. She was pulling out earplugs as I approached, talking to customers ordering from the Coffeehouse’s menu of hot drinks, all of which are served for free.
The change to free drinks came last year in an effort to encourage more people to come to the Coffeehouse, both students and Durhamites.
“This is the one space on campus where students can interact with that community,” Patel said.
The green lights rose again, welcoming Blood, a band from Austin, Texas. I recognized the man in front as the same who was smoking outside, now with his shoulder-length hair drawn into two space buns at the top of his head.
Saturday’s show, co-sponsored by local radio station WXDU, was one of two this week. However, the Coffeehouse is open every day from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. On other nights, it is a space for studying, working and meeting with friends.
“It’s the same space, but with a really different feel, a different purpose,” Genender said.
On the average weeknight, students spill into the Coffeehouse around the peak hours of 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., sitting on mismatched blue and red couches underneath bendable lights. Of all the different possible seats in the Coffeehouse, I could only find two that matched.
“Some seek it out as a break from Perkins or Lilly [Library]. Other people might actually get work done here,” Atkinson said of the students who work in the Coffeehouse.
On a considerably calmer Sunday night when I also visited, the music came from a collectively-sourced Spotify playlist made by the staff. Atkinson described it as possibly French, but not really electro-pop.
His description of the music matched my general feeling from the last two nights I spent in Duke Coffeehouse: a mix of more different sounds and sights than I could count, all seeming to fit with each other in something that is decidedly its own.
Correction: The band on stage and pictured is Personality Cult, not Patois Counselors, who performed later in the night. The Chronicle regrets the error.