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Coffee With the Freaks: Remembering Lenadams Dorris

The next time you’re dawdling over a cappuccino at your favorite coffeehouse — maybe while scribbling in your journal, maybe reading, maybe sketching or daydreaming or doing nothing much at all — raise a toast to Lenadams Dorris. The Las Vegas luminary passed away March 7 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dorris was a big, kind, funny man who did a lot of everything. He was an essayist, a gardener, a voice for the arts, a dining critic, and a KNPR “Desert Bloom” commentator, but it was his tenure as a café owner and café fixture in the ’80s and ’90s that had the most impact on Las Vegas. Dorris created habitats where artists, slackers, punks, and clove-puffing poets could do the serious work of being utterly unserious about conventional societal pursuits. He made spaces where bohemians could meet other bohemians and, blessedly, realize they weren’t completely crazy and hopelessly weird and alone. He brought to the valley a European vision of literate but vigorous coffeehouse culture that, with its countless poetry readings and art shows and open-mic nights, was the basis for much of today’s local arts and culture scene.

Dorris put it best in a 2006 Las Vegas Weekly story: “I decided that if I couldn't find the freaks, I would create a place where the freaks could find me.”

His flagship café was The Newsroom, which opened Downtown in 1985, and later moved to the University District. Its draw was the magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals Dorris procured from around the world. The life of The Newsroom was short; it closed in late 1987, and Dorris laid low for a while. But The Newsroom’s spirit and philosophy seemed to inspire other university-area cafes in its wake, and indirectly germinated a ’90s cultural bloom on Maryland Parkway: After The Newsroom, there was Café Espresso Roma, with its marble-slab tables, raucous poetry nights, and staff of luxuriantly jaded junkies, and Café Copioh, a clamorous warren whose decor could best be described as rococo thrift store meets opium den; it was at Café Copioh that Dorris would often hold court with the Maryland Parkway intelligentsia. (I remember this is when the phrase “hold court” really took on color and meaning for me, because Dorris embodied it so well — because he had the rare quality of being genuinely interesting.)

There were other flourishings around the district: At the Tower Records on Maryland and Flamingo, you’d pick up the latest Scope Magazine or New Times and rent something by Ingmar Bergman from Tower’s little video rental shop run by broke film students. Getting falafel from Paymon’s across the street — then, it was just a dinky Middle Eastern spice shop with a small kitchen, plastic seating, and a plug-in fountain — showed your worldly palate. (Plus, it was cheap.) And the Double Down Saloon was a refuge, not a tourist curiosity.

Perhaps grief is magnifying him in my mind, but Dorris was a prime mover in this whole scene. Later, with Julie Brewer, Dorris co-owned and ran a spot Downtown, Enigma Garden Café, another magnet for local creatives. It was literally a patio in a backyard on Fourth Street, but the name Enigma captured its verdant magic at a certain time and place in the Las Vegas arts scene — and reflected the generosity and imagination of a true Vegas treasure.

(Photo: Lenadams Dorris at Café Cophio in 1994. Photo by Keith J. Haubrich)

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