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Higher grounds

New Age music plays on a boom box. A chalkboard lists coffee and snacks under categories such as Dark Night of Soul, Last Temptations, and Diet of Vorms. Regulars’ mugs hang on wooden pegs. An espresso machine prepares shots for two-buck lattes.

LuLu/Sharon Langley & Associates

Starbucks this is not.

At Grounds of Being, the Divinity School basement coffee shop, political correctness trumps corporate culture. Forget the ubiquitous green apron. Here a T-shirt with the slogan “Where God drinks coffee” and jeans is the unofficial uniform, and a reflective vibe pervades.

“At times there can be religious overtones,” graduate student Anant Kishore says, manning the Swift Hall shop’s green Formica counter one morning. Behind Kishore, AM’03, who keeps the faith in a Cubs jersey, a handwritten cardboard sign sets the mood: “Every moment is precious. Stay awake. Drink more coffee.”

Answering the caffeine call, customers, mostly faculty and students, crowd into the small space at 7:45 a.m., when the doors open Monday through Friday. “I’ve been coming here for two years, almost every day,” Lisa Bastarache, SB’03, says, nursing an iced double espresso with soy milk. “The coffee’s very good, and it’s cheap.”

Seated at one of the shop’s black wooden tables, Bastarache, a programmer for a University psychology lab, slides headphones over her pixie haircut and listens to tunes on a Macintosh laptop, blocking out Grounds of Being’s music selections, which generally have a classic-rock or mystical bent. Low prices, not ambience, customers agree, offer the main draw.

To deliver such bargain brews, students launched the shop in the late ’60s, says senior employee Joshua Patty. “My understanding,” based on visits from old-timers, “is when it was opened, it was a coffeepot or two,” graduate student Patty says, “and, if someone remembered, doughnuts.” Later ethnic and vegetarian fare from local restaurants and other goodies were introduced.

The java selection also grew more sophisticated. Since the mid-’90s the shop has sold Equal Exchange’s organic gourmet coffee, fairly traded from farmer co-ops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “It was the students who pushed for it in the beginning,” he notes, “because they wanted to spend their money wisely and ethically.”

Today little has changed: the coffee comes cheap—small, medium, and large cups o’ regular joe run $0.60, $0.80 and $1 (a large Starbucks coffee at the nearby Barnes & Noble café costs $1.80). The Divinity School Association oversees the nonprofit shop, which brings in about $3,500 a day—money that funds worker salaries and Div School initiatives, Patty says, including scholarships and research grants.

Although Grounds of Being belongs to an extensive Hyde Park java scene, including three other student-run campus shops, it has a distinct flavor. “The fact that it’s in the Div School has something to do with it,” he suggests. In a play on its location, the mud house formerly known as the Divinity School Coffee Shop adopted the name Grounds of Being about a year ago.

Keeping with the theological theme, Patty, clad in jean shorts and a Mount Rushmore T-shirt, sings along to “Son of a Preacher Man”—two times through—while cleaning up after the lunchtime rush. A few hungry latecomers bop their heads as they navigate the now-dwindling line, sifting through the remaining containers of vegetarian lasagna, bean burritos, and hibachi shrimp—food that, a poster declares, will “feed your conscience while you feed your belly.”

Around 1:30 p.m. the afternoon shift begins. The arrival of a male undergrad, dressed in head-to-toe Polo, causes employee Lauren Osborne (in a pink tank with a monogrammed L) and a hipster friend to raise their eyebrows. “There’s a lot of weird characters that come in here,” Osborne, a graduate student, later notes.

Preppy or punk, each coffee and tea drinker hears the same spiel. The workers repeat their questions with the practiced ease of a mantra: “Regular or gourmet?” Breaking the rhythm for a moment, a customer asks, “What’s the difference?”

“One’s politically correct,” Osborne answers—and wins a convert. Scooping ice for the next order, she returns to a religious conversation. “I don’t think you can talk about a text that’s human-created as a word of God,” she argues, pausing to inquire, “Do you need room for milk?”

As the day winds down—Grounds of Being closes at 4 p.m.—Osborne prepares last-minute drinks, some with milk, all with a side of spirituality.—M.L.


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