A new look for Spasso in Rockridge. Photo: Kirsten Royston of “I Do Props”

After a two month hiatus, Oakland coffee shop Spasso is once again open for business. The Rockridge café, a community fixture for more than two decades, changed ownership in December 2017, and new owners Elizabeth McKoy and Tim Choate closed the space in July for much-needed renovation and redesign.

“Every single thing was taken out and put back in except the floors,” said McKoy, who lives in Berkeley.

The café had its soft opening on Sept. 16 and has been open seven days a week since. Although regulars can still expect much of the same offerings and vibe to its former iteration, there are definite changes worth noting. Spasso has a different layout and color scheme, it currently sources its coffee and espresso drinks from Emeryville’s McLaughlin Coffee, and will soon be rolling out a new menu of daytime eats (for now, there are goodies from Oakland’s Batch Pastries and an abbreviated food menu, with a new lunch offerings to come in the next couple of weeks). What’s most notable, though, is that Spasso is now a non-profit café and community event space.

“I wanted an intimate space for artists and for community events,” said McKoy.

McKoy is the founder of Berkeley Playhouse, housed in the Julia Morgan Theater on College Avenue,  and was on the hunt for a complementary space, one less formal and more interactive than a traditional theater. With coffee at every corner, McKoy felt a need to differentiate Spasso from other cafés and has high hopes the shop can be more than just a spot to order a latte.

“There are so many interesting and amazing people here,” she said, indicating both the Bay Area in general and Oakland and Rockridge, specifically. “Writers, musicians, fine artists, politicians,” she said. “This is a beehive of a place, an exciting place to be.”

McKoy wants to offer those people a place to interact with the local community, and vice versa. Performance space, like most Bay Area real estate, is expensive, so McKoy’s solution is to subsidize the arts, one cup at a time, by operating as a café during daytime hours, and then to switch at night to a more intimate, cabaret-like atmosphere.

A new sign at Spasso announces that it’s an arts and community café. Photo: Kirsten Royston of “I Do Props”

“In the arts world, what a lot of us struggle with is how can we afford to do our work when we can’t afford to pay the bill for the brick and mortar,” said McKoy. “So a part of this vision is that the café supports this change-over in the evening.”

For now, Spasso is hosting musical events only on weekends, though that’s owing more to the wishes of the performers than to restrictions on the space. McKoy would love to offer programs five days a week, hosting musicians, fine artists, small theater companies, independent film producers, comics and other creative performers.

As a nonprofit, grants might eventually be part of the means by which Spasso supports local artists. But in the meantime, McKoy hopes that by opening Spasso to performers, the community will likewise step up to support the arts by patronizing the café. “If we want amazing things, we’re all going to have to awaken and understand that we need to support those things,” said McKoy. “I would love to see more and more spaces like this occur.”

To that end, McKoy is cheered by the growing number of nontraditional venues offering art space to their communities, citing the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland and Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco as encouraging developments.

McKoy has high hopes for Spasso, and ambitions to make it something of a destination and a legacy performing arts space for Oakland.

“I want this to be like the ‘Cheers’ of the art places,” she said. “It’s kind of my mission to make this a place where people put these down,” she said, holding out then dropping her phone to the table, “and connect eye to eye and touch and smell food and laugh and encounter each other.”

“We’re in for the long game,” she said. “Message by message, and good experience by good experience, we can have this be something of an institution.”

Spasso is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m Saturday and Sunday, with evening hours to be announced. Readers interested in performing are encouraged to contact Spasso at spassoartscoordinator@gmail.com, or by filling out the contact form on the cafe’s webpage.

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.