It helps the marginalized in the community, helps people rebuild lives. I like the fact
that we’re doing something for the community, making the world a better place,” Drake Rogers says.

Must be a social worker, right? Or one of those underpaid, nonprofit agency employees perhaps? Nope. Drake is a volunteer at Uncle
Calvin’s Coffeehouse, a neighborhood hangout
housed in Northpark Presbyterian Church.

Michael Terry, coffeehouse guru/volunteer-in-charge, offers up some history: Uncle Calvin’s opened in 1982, the brainchild of an associate minister, as a singles’ spot and an alcohol- and smoke-free alternative to the burgeoning Greenville Avenue bar and night club scene.

And just who is Uncle Calvin?

None other than John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterian church and, contrary to his stern image, an amateur musician and believer in the healing power of music. Quickly outgrowing its narrow singles’ focus, Uncle
Calvin’s soon evolved into a popular folk music venue and is now recognized nationally as a premiere acoustic music “listening room”: Texas Highways magazine called it a “songwriter’s paradise,” and Performing
Songwriters magazine has featured it as well.

Unlike other music venues in town, the coffeehouse is operated entirely by volunteers, and all profits benefit local charitable organizations chosen each year by the volunteers. Recipients in the past have included Habitat for Humanity and Austin Street Shelter. Though Calvin’s is located in a church, patrons need not worry about any overzealous proselytizing going on — the church’s only role is to generously donate its fellowship hall each week.

A bare and silent room most of the week, every Friday afternoon the hall undergoes an amazing transformation, thanks to a rotation of about 15 volunteers. Within a couple of hours, the hall magically assumes an intimate
coffeehouse atmosphere, filled with tables
covered by blue-and white-checked tablecloths,
candles, and “antique” Perrier bottles filled with flowers. Though the acoustically sound hall could easily fit 400 people in rows of chairs, the volunteers prefer to maintain the more comfortable and relaxed setup of tables, which seat about 200.

While enjoying the music, patrons can sip freshly-brewed gourmet coffee, teas and juices, as well as indulge in incredibly rich desserts from local bakeries at bargain prices; most slices of cake, cheesecake, etc. cost a mere dollar.

And what of the music?

While the primary featured genre is folk, a la Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, its influences also grace the stage: Appalachian and on the performing scene at Calvin’s, which also has hosted well-known national favorites such as Janis Ian, Tish Hinojosa and John Gorka.

The music and the mission of Uncle Calvin’s make the volunteers a dedicated and passionate bunch. Jim Ross, a worker for over 10 years, says: “People go the Calvin’s to listen to the music … it’s not heavily amplified … you can hear the lyrics.”

Laughing, he adds that many performers are somewhat startled by the attention and silence of the audience — no chatting or raucous behavior normally seen at musical performances. Another volunteer, Linda Silas, agrees with Calvin’s assessment of the restorative power of music, particularly folk music that is lyric-oriented.

“It’s a form of therapy,” she says. “It gives you a different point of view and tends to be very healing.”

Calvin’s devotee Gary Trobridge agrees. Shortly after his father’s death, Gary and wife Terri sat in Uncle Calvin’s, listening to singer/songwriter Dave Mallett sing an original composition, “My Old Man,” a tribute to Mallett’s dad.

“He might as well have been singing about my old man,” Trobridge says. “That was one of the very few times I ever cried in public, even if it was in a dark hall.”

Woody Woodward, soundman at Calvin’s since 1991, has also found inspiration in the music. Taking to heart a song by Calvin’s performers Trout Fishing in America — “A dream is just a dream until you look it in the eye” — Woody
quit his presumably thankless job as an IRS auditor and is now building an accounting clientele of singers and songwriters, people he says he loves for their honest and tolerant natures.

Meaningful acoustic music, great coffee, yummy desserts — and no ringing ears or smoky clothes afterward. All this and helping local charities, too.

Says one devoted patron: “I wouldn’t miss it — good week or bad week. Uncle Calvin’s is my reward at the end.”

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