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Creativity Unbound

Is there anything Black Owl Café’s Darren Bain hasn’t done?
Darin-Bain-Kalamazoo-Coffee-Co.-Black Owl Cafe
Bain in an upstairs room of his Black Owl Cafe; a room he is hoping to open to the public soon.

Darren Bain is out of breath. He is expanding the back room behind Black Owl Café on Walbridge Street, where he and business partner Garrett Krugh roast beans for their joint venture, Kalamazoo Coffee Co. Constructing a wall of windows so the atmosphere echoes the beauty they’ve created in the coffee shop, Bain takes a break from hammering and squats above a floor sheathed in sawdust.

He wears thick-rimmed glasses under a North Face ball cap and apologizes for not having more time to talk. “I’m the only one who can do this,” he says, pointing to the wall he is building.

Bain, a native of Pocatello, Idaho, is in his early 40s and is the artistic brain and brawn behind the café’s rustic aesthetic. He’s also a musician, a dad, a writer and a painter who recently wrote and illustrated his first children’s book, Kip and K’nor.

“I guess some people would call me a … uh … ,” Bain says, searching for the right word. One thinks he might say “Renaissance man,” which is actually not a bad phrase to describe him, but instead Bain says, “… illustrator.”

Bain has written three more books, including a follow-up to the alliterative, fable-like Kip and K’nor. He has yet to illustrate them, but he’s not sure when he’ll have time for that.

Bain also does the artwork for all of Kalamazoo Coffee Co.’s packaging. He points to a wall of shelves where shiny foil bags are stacked like tidy soldiers in sleeping bags. “Have you seen the bags yet?” he asks, pulling down one that has three cows diving into a cup of crème brûlée on the front.

Some of the packaging art begins as pen-and-ink drawings. Other art is taken from his illustrations in Kip and K’nor, whose inspiration came from Bain’s travels during the off-season when he worked inventorying cell phone towers. He worked six months a year for 10 years, backpacking around the world by himself, carrying small sketchbooks and drawing a lot. Many of the illustrations on Kalamazoo Coffee Co.’s bags come from those drawings.

Black Owl Café, which opened in 2012, was recently named Michigan’s Best Coffee Shop by the MLive news organization. The accolade surprised Bain, who didn’t know his establishment was even in the running.

Emily Wegemer, a resident of Kalamazoo and a devotee of its coffee shops, swears by Kalamazoo Coffee Co.’s products. “Black Owl has the best coffee in town, by far,” she says. “I love what they’re doing.”

Black Owl Café is a place where coffee cups are stored in cubbyholes and hammered spoons are personalized in exchange for a donation to the company’s membership club. You could call the coffee shop a hipster haven, but while the word “hipster” conjures someone with a laconic, sarcastic veneer, Bain is all energy and action.

The first time I meet Bain he leads me through every room in his downtown building, one block from the large, brick Kalamazoo sign dividing Michigan and Kalamazoo avenues. He says the building dates back to the 1920s and was home at one time to a pattern works that made wood models of items that were going to be engineered in metal and to a business that made electric motors.
Starting the tour, Bain leaves an office-like corner where a child’s pink car seat is strapped inexplicably to a metal stool, like the punch line to an inside joke. “You know what I really want to build?” he asks. “A spa.”

When pressed for the kind of spa — perhaps a Norwegian sauna or a place for massage and facials? — Bain moves on. He is climbing the stairs to a room just over the café. This room is long and full of natural light, with an irregularly shaped stage at one end.

Originally set up to provide more seating for the café, the room needs a sprinkler system before the city of Kalamazoo will approve its use. Once Bain finishes the new wall downstairs, getting this room up to code will be his next priority. “We want to do it right,” he says, hinting there were phases in his life when rule following was not a top priority.

More seating would allow for more customers, and more customers would offer the potential for expanded hours and more food options in the kitchen. Although the café is packed at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, its current hours are limited to 7 a.m.—3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m.—2 p.m. weekends.

Black Owl serves egg scrambles, pancakes and waffles on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It offers Sweetwater’s doughnuts, cookies and cinnamon rolls at all times, as well as specialty drinks like vegan hot chocolate, chai lattes and espresso. The café brews Kalamazoo Coffee Co. coffee, of course, using beans that have been roasted on-site.

Although the owners hope to expand the café’s hours, Bain says he also has to set some limits on his work hours because he has a 4-year-old son whose mother lives elsewhere. “I don’t work around the clock because I made a vow to myself that I’d be a dad first,” he says.

Kip and K’nor

It is that devotion to his son that was instrumental in the creation of his children’s book Kip and K’nor. The book tells the story of a chicken and a pig on the hunt for a limitless water supply. Their journey begins in a dried-up lakebed. Illustrated in rich reds and with whimsical characters like a pot-bellied pig and a cow soaking in a roadside bath, the book traverses several landscapes with bizarre guides before arriving at its summit, where persistent effort is rewarded.

Bain wrote Kip and K’nor for his son, who helped illustrate it. Together they drew on 3-by-4-foot canvases and photographed the process. Bain painted over their drawings, but he knows those are under the final work, and it’s important to him that his son knows that, too.

When he finished writing the book, Bain showed it to his mother and to his painting mentor, who both said it was missing something. “In my heart, I knew that there was something missing, too,” he says. “It was making me angry. I was like, this is the best I can do!”

Then he woke in the middle of the night with the missing part of the story: the word “faith,” a word that prompts some readers to ask if the story is religious but that Bain believes is an essential part of life.

“I have faith that a train is going to come by,” he says. “I have faith when I pick up my son at school that he’ll be healthy and well today. You know, you have faith in a lot of parts of your life.”
As someone who has had several careers, who grew up winning music awards for playing the French horn before leaping head first into an indie rock career, faith that everything will turn out OK is something Bain has put into practice every day.

If including that one word in his book made its story come alive, it also closed some doors to traditional publishing. Bain launched a Kickstarter campaign and published the book himself, a decision he says he doesn’t regret for a second.

The book is available online and at BookBug in Kalamazoo. In Bain’s building, a giant stack of Kip and K’nor books roosts hip-high under a tarp, awaiting distribution. Like a lot of things in his life right now, they have to take a number.

Building works of art

In the not-quite-up-to-code room on the second floor of the Black Owl building, old doors comprise one wall, interspersed with rustic barn wood. Bain has engineered sockets along this wall to house machinery for drop-down tables.

The whole room is a work of art, but Bain downplays his carpentry skills. “I’m self-taught in everything,” he says.

When pressed about how creativity functions in his life, he doesn’t want to talk about talent or vision or ambition. He wants to tell stories. Like one about the time he was a junior studying music at the University of Idaho and got a call from the manager of alternative rock group R.E.M. Bain had sent a tape to R.E.M’s music label and was being invited to move to Atlanta to play music. On the way to take a test the following day, Bain instead veered off the path leading to his classroom, went to the registrar’s office and withdrew from school.

“That was my first time leaving Idaho,” he says. It’s fun to imagine a young Bain on the precipice of exploration. He seems to have been just as full of direction and energy then, but without the responsibilities he has now as a dad and business owner.

Not that he is cowed by those responsibilities. Hearing him talk about how he built the room on the second floor, painting each brick on one wall a different shade of muddy green, the construction sounds like a whimsical affair. Dust covers the stage. A faded picture of a religious icon — Mary? Jesus? — alights like a sporadic ornament in the middle of all those doors.

But there is something perfect about the room. Maybe it’s just that no other bodies are present to interfere with its clean architecture, strong brick bones or the panes in all those windows, but it feels impeccably rustic.

Indeed, Bain says he sanded the whole floor by hand. An American flag stretches along the brick wall facing the wall of doors, painted with just 48 stars, “the number of states there were when this building was originally built,” Bain explains.

Details like this tell the story of not only the physical place but the mind of an artist.

It’s probably no accident then that the first page of Kip and K’nor starts with characters floating on a raft made of an old kitchen door. Bain has a whole room in the Black Owl building that stores piles of old lumber — barn wood he has hauled from farms in an old pickup truck. If he were one of the characters in his book, he’d likely be afloat in a sea of old doors.

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Darren Bain's Black Owl Café, which opened in 2012, was recently named Michigan’s Best Coffee Shop by the MLive news organization. The accolade surprised Bain, who didn’t know his establishment was even in the running.