In 1960, Lena Spencer and her husband Bill opened a humble coffeehouse in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Spencers had barely an inkling of what Caffè Lena would become: A groundbreaking mainstay in the folk music world, providing an early venue for singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Pete Seeger. Half a century later, Caffè Lena lays claim to the title of America’s longest continually running coffeehouse. The following memories are abridged excerpts from Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, published by powerhouse Books.
I. Why We Started Caffè Lena
By Lena Spencer
Neither Bill nor I had any background in folk music. Bill’s leanings were toward classical music, mine toward jazz and swing.
“We’ll make enough money in one year to finance at least five years in Europe.” That was the initial reason.
We found our location, the second story of a loft on Phila Street. The first floor housed a laundromat and a dinky little antique store. The second floor had been unused since 1953 and was in a state of disrepair.
We suddenly found ourselves involved in a kind of music to which we had never been exposed, a kind of music that was slowly developing an appreciative audience.
Soon we were making weekly Monday night trips to New York City and the “hoots” at Gerde’s Folk City where we got to meet and hear many of the greatest folk artists in the country, booking them to perform at the Caffè.
Well, a year went by and it turned out that we didn’t make enough money in a year to spend the next five years in Europe. It was more like we were in the red. Bill became very frustrated because he couldn’t do his own work and the pressures of the Caffè were beginning to get a little too much for him. To make a long story short, he just got out. I chose to stay here and pick up all the pieces and put them together.