It is small and thin, barely larger than a brochure, maybe 30 pages — more of a protracted essay, really. It was written by a man named Katsuji Daibo, who ran a small cafe in Tokyo in the late 1970’s. He closed this shop in 2013, and years later wrote this simple record of it: his observations, his favourite memories. His shop was, in many ways, a third-wave cafe, long before the third wave. Before the white-washed walls, the oat-milk lattes, and all the new-fangled technology, Katsuji Daibo was obsessing over the wood grain on the pine boards of his bar, the shapes of his chairs, the quality of the light that poured in from his inset front window, just so, in a way that balanced what you could and could not see.
I wanted the space to be for people to shed their armour and return to their true self, in the most peaceful way possible, even though coffee should fulfill that role.
And of course, the coffee. He roasted it himself on a small hand-crank roaster each morning, standing and carefully rotating a drum over a gas flame for hours before his first customers arrived. There is something ethereal about his description of roasting:
Finding the character of each flavour of each coffee is important, not just for the bright and dark expressions, but for light and deep flavours, or smiling, thick, refreshing sensations, as well as serenity and elegance. There is a great deal of versatility in changing the roasting point.
Daibo obsessed over his coffee. In the Japanese tradition of craft and service, this was no anomaly, but in the 1980’s — a time when Americans (and many Japanese) were still drinking Folgers and Maxwell House, it was a revelation. It would not be until the early aughts that the interest in such service, precision, and care would come to pervade the rest of coffee-drinking society. In some ways, it has still not.
So Daibo wrote this small essay in 2013, and published 1,000 copies on a small printing press. Like everything he did, it is meticulous, and beautiful.
He talks about his customers, his glassware, his homemade tools. He talks a lot about his bar and the smoke from the roasting machine. It is all very Japanese. To read it is to be transported to not only a different place, but to a different time; a different appreciation of things. On flower arrangements:
As the arrangement of flowers grew smaller, the expression displayed in each instance seemed more precious and well worth admiration just because they only existed for a given moment. Even a wilted flower has its charm. Even a single flower alone, when placed against the dark brown wall as a backdrop, seemed to represent the atmosphere. It would be quite something when, even for a few minutes in the early hours of an afternoon, the flowers were illuminated by the sun shining through the window like a spotlight.
I love the text of this book, but I truly love the book itself. It is a humble, beautiful object, so perfectly in-tune with the story it enfolds that is seems almost to be a piece of Daibo himself.
The book is printed mechanically on beautiful uncoated paper; paper with a natural grain and texture... not so white that it appears sterile, but a clean, calming, white with a touch of warmth to it. Even the cover is uncoated. In fact, the cover is one of my favourite features of this book — it is white too. Actually, it is nearly white, because over time the uncoated white paper has picked up faint markings, oils, and dirt from fingertips. These are not highly visible, but I would not mind if they were — the paper is developing, with time, a beautiful patina.
There is nothing on the cover except a title, set in smallish text, maybe 20 points, a byline, set a little bit smaller, and the name of the press, set smaller still near the bottom. This theme continues throughout: nothing except text. Text, set conservatively in tight lines, and wide, beautiful margins on all sides. Two inches, maybe even three. Wide margins are another thing I love. They let the text breath deep, slow breaths. They feel expansive. They give the page a sense of pace. They relax the mind.
There is no colophon, but the book is typeset in a beautiful serifed font.
Being mechanically printed, the kerning on the letters is a little uneven, the ink coverage on the terminals and apertures bleeds just the teensiest bit in spots. Not so much that you would notice it unless you were to stare through a magnifying glass — nearly imperceptible fractions of points. These little imperfections bring the letters, and the pages themselves, to life in a way that digitally mass-produced books can never replicate.
If the pages were quite busy, or full of illustrations, or set in large type with wide leading, these qualities would be lost. But because the text is humble and spacious, they are not. They emanate. The whole thing emanates a sort of humble grace. The sort of grace that you might easily miss but if you stare at, can take your breath away.
And it is just 30 pages — nearly a pamphlet. 30 simple pages, but in those 30 simple pages one can get lost in this other time, this other appreciation of things. The pages of the book and the ink bleeds and the oils on the cover and the margins, they all becomes part of the story itself. This is what great books do.