Just beyond the windows of Redondo Beach’s Coffee Cartel, an electric world of words awaits. Four minutes at the mic … and the rest is up to you.
- Written byJulia Horwitz
It’s a Tuesday night in the Redondo Beach Riviera Village. While most of the neon signs have been switched off for the night, one still buzzes: “Redondo’s First Authentic Coffee House.” Just beyond that sign is a scene from a bygone era—beat poetry in a coffeehouse setting … this time infused with young, new voices.
The Coffee Cartel coffee shop is a Redondo Beach staple, bursting at the seams with excellent lattes, eclectic clientele and platforms for local artists to make connections.
One person creating a framework for those connections is South Bay native Jim Doane. Jim is the founder of Redondo Poets, a group that has hosted a poetry reading at the Coffee Cartel every Tuesday night for the last 17 years. After years of trying on different homes, Redondo Poets found their perfect fit at the coffee shop.
“It’s a place that defines open,” Jim says, describing the venue. “Half of the walls here are covered in windows; that openness affects the psychology of everyone in it.” Those windows, in conjunction with Jim’s determination to create a space for writers and musicians “to be whoever they want to be without pretense,” create an ambience that leaves people feeling welcomed, loved and hungry for more week after week.
I’ve been attending Coffee Cartel readings for the past eight months, and I can genuinely say that it is one of the most special places I’ve ever encountered. Writing means everything to me, and I am convinced that sharing words has the power to heal, create change and bring people together like few things can. And I’m not the only young person who feels this way.
Poetry is making its comeback. Since the emergence of slam poetry in the ‘90s, the genre has truly become a youth movement. It is the fusion of that young enthusiasm with the knowledge and talent of the more experienced Coffee Cartel attendees that makes it such a powerful place. The support and advice that I’ve received from older artists each Tuesday impacts my life in a huge way.
Jim had a similarly impactful experience when he fell in love with writing, even if his first date with poetry had an unconventional location: a business consulting office. “If you know anything about business plans, you know they’re total fiction. You’re making up what a business is going to look like in four to five years when you have no idea,” Jim explains. “I thought, ‘Why am I writing about fiction in business? I should be writing about fiction where it doesn’t become stressful and I do it for myself.’”
Soon after this realization, Jim attended his first poetry reading and was overcome by the sensation that he had found what he needed to do. But there was one problem: The South Bay was in a poetry dry spell.
Larry Culker, renowned poet and co-host of the Coffee Cartel reading, explains, “Between Santa Ana and Long Beach, there were no venues for poetry.” At the time, most open mics and writing workshops were inconvenient for South Bay residents to get to, hindering the growth of this area’s poetry community.
So in 1998 Jim decided to change that. He and several other South Bay poets started Redondo Poets, a group that began their career hosting workshops for eight to 10 local writers. The workshops were transformative for those involved, but Jim knew they could work toward something larger. He started hosting readings on his own at first, and two years later with Larry.
Coffee Cartel readings are governed by one simple rule: Each reader gets four minutes at the mic. Besides that time limit, anything goes. When the reading began, there were about 10 regulars. Now the reading houses anywhere from 50 to 100 people each Tuesday.
Jim marvels at how the reading draws people from every area, culture and background. “We attract everyone from the beach bums to the writers and actors who have made it big to high school students looking to be inspired by them,” he says.
There are typically about 25 brave souls who volunteer to read, and one featured poet or performer. This feature is one of the things that makes the reading so special to the community. This featured person could be anyone from a seasoned poet to a member of a spoken word group to a high school student like myself. The reading is completely free, but each week Jim passes around his flat-topped hat and invites coffee-shop dwellers to support the week’s featured poet.
MASTER OF CEREMONY Larry Culker, Coffee Cartel reading cohost
Eric Landon, a recent featured poet, joined me in the Riviera Village parking lot to talk about his passion for poetry and pre-feature jitters. Eric is an 18-year-old high school student at Rolling Hills Preparatory School who uses poetry as a vehicle for moving out of personal struggles and into a life of art and clarity.
Eric, dressed to the nines in a suit jacket and holding a cigarette, says, “Poetry has given absolute meaning to my life.” His work is unique in its range, spanning from rap to spoken word to improv poetry that lets the audience get involved.
In less than a year of attending, Eric has already met with a music partner at the Coffee Cartel and begun to record. Eric admits, “I was up until 1 a.m. last night making booklets to sell. I can’t wait to get started.”
Because there is such a range of features from week to week, the Coffee Cartel is an ideal site for finding out what’s new in the poetry world. Ruthanne Kline, a woman in head-to-toe damask print who attends the reading each week, says that it’s the features that keep her coming back. She tells me she’s never written a poem of her own and then corrects herself—remembering that she’s written two.
But she prefers to soak up the words of others, and the Coffee Cartel reading gives her a weekly poetry fix. She says, “I got turned on to poetry later on in life, and it was so amazing. It answered something real deep inside of me.”
Taylor Colbert, a Mira Costa High School student, talks about how the reading gives her a breath of fresh air in the middle of her hectic week. “Getting to play music here and relax with my friends is always so needed,” she explains.
Larry notes how important and heartening it is that young people like Taylor have a space like the Coffee Cartel reading. He stands by the fact that “poetry is a universal language”—one that gives people the chance to relate to each other in the midst of a week and world that seems disconnected at times.
As the Coffee Cartel reading moves into the future, Jim hopes that it continues to grow and change while still maintaining its distinct warmth. He wants to make sure that the reading is a home that people can return to.
“We are the AAA minor league of poetry,” he says. “We are a space where people can come, get used to the mic, be influenced by a thousand things after that, and then come back to the mic.”
Jim reflects on the people he’s seen blossom after starting their artistic journeys at the reading. He says that reading at the Coffee Cartel is like a graduate class in learning to find your voice and be true to yourself.
The real magic of the Coffee Cartel can be seen once the reading wraps up at 10 p.m. and the microphone is put away. Swarming in the neon light and distant smell of coffee are people hugging, mingling and discussing each other’s performances from the night. This reading embodies a feeling of genuine love and support that is so important in any community.
The reading fades into waves crashing on the Redondo Shore and returns each Tuesday as the sun melts into the sidewalk. So the next time you’re in the Riviera Village, don’t ignore the pull. Come inside, get yourself a latte, and get ready to open your heart, mind and notebook.