By Neal Pollack
Late last spring Brian Kozin had a strange dream about kachinas, attended a Native American sun dance ceremony with a friend he'd met through a vision, and received prophetic advice from an acupuncturist who's also a psychic. He decided it was time to sell the No Exit Cafe.
"After a treatment last year, this acupuncturist said, 'How's the business doing?' Before I could answer him, he said, 'You know that's what's killing you, don't you?'" says Kozin. "I thought about it, and I realized that it was probably time to move on. The stress of maintaining this institution for 21 years was probably finally getting to me. It was time to do something else."
Kozin's wife, Sue, with whom he co-owns the Rogers Park coffeehouse, had decided long ago that it was time to sell. Buying the same groceries, fixing the same leaks, and paying the same bills over and over again had worn them both down. Brian's decision was a relief. They posted a notice on the No Exit Web page and on some Internet newsgroups that Sue belongs to. In the January No Exit newsletter, written by Brian and distributed only in the cafe, the official word appeared, albeit elliptically: "HEY KIDS: GOT A TRUST FUND? BORED? You may be interested in owning a real piece of Beatnik history--ask owner for details."
The No Exit will celebrate its 40th anniversary in September. Since its founding in Evanston in 1958, the cafe has regularly hosted musical performances, including sets by Steve Goodman, Art Thieme, Bob Gibson, and Irish folksinger Christy Moore. It has been the subject of skits on Saturday Night Live and at Second City and was featured in the River Phoenix movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, whose director, William Richert, read poetry there when he was a high school student in Evanston. Three generations of bohemians have called it home.
When the Kozins took over in 1977, they were the fifth owners. By that time the cafe's heyday as a music venue was over. As Brian likes to say, "We cleverly bought this place at the end of the folk boom." Nevertheless, in 1984 the Kozins moved the No Exit to its current location, a fairly spacious and irregularly shaped storefront on Glenwood Avenue. These days live entertainment brings in only about 20 percent of the cafe's business. The Kozins admittedly have lost touch with current trends, as illustrated by the disastrous attendance at a recent "electronica" night, and they don't have time or energy to search for new acts. "If a musician doesn't come to see us," Brian acknowledges, "we don't even know they exist."
Though the Kozins' interest in the business had obviously been declining of late, none of the cafe's regulars took seriously Brian's claims that it was for sale. After all, the Kozins have owned the No Exit longer than all its other owners put together, and it was almost impossible for regulars to imagine the place without their eccentric habits. Brian is, among other things, a mystic, a jewelry maker, an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, a wickedly mean poker and backgammon player, and an unabashed, card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. Sue, for her part, has logged 36,000 miles on her motorcycle and is a founding member of the Greater Chicagoland BMW Owners Association. By her own admission, she is less interested in ethereal (and gun-related) matters than her husband. During slow times at the cafe she crochets and reads magazines instead of engaging in spirited antigovernment rants, the preferred pastime of Brian and his friends.
"This is such a weird place," says Sue, "which is why we haven't run screaming as of yet. There are so many odd things about it that you don't really see in the real world. Where else do the customers walk behind the counter and answer the phone? They make their own change. Sometimes they make their own coffee. We've had customers who would bring their own tea in and then pay for it by the pot."
Brian's early attempts to find a buyer did nothing to diminish the skepticism of the clientele. "I had a couple of inquiries from people," Brian says. "One from an actor. I thought he was a fairly young guy, then he told me he was about 80. He apparently had something to do with the place when he was at Northwestern University back in the late 50s and early 60s. He was involved in some theater productions here. He claimed he had some people with money who would be interested. I never heard from him again."
Then one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, a longtime regular named Cindy Olsen was puttering around in the cafe's kitchen. Olsen had just moved back to the neighborhood after a sojourn in Wicker Park, and she told Brian how much she'd missed the No Exit.
"Why don't you just rent the place from me, then?" Kozin asked. He quoted her a price.
To Olsen's surprise, it sounded like a reasonable offer. She went home and called her boyfriend, John Kiolbasa.
"I have something to ask you," she said.
Kiolbasa said it sounded like a great idea. That very afternoon he'd run across A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon on cable and had been thinking how cool it would be to have a place like the No Exit. The next day, the couple called Kozin and discussed terms: two months' rent as a down payment, and the option to buy the building in two or three years. They made a deal. As of May 1, Olsen and Kiolbasa will run the No Exit.
"I was surprised that it happened just like that," Brian says. "So's everybody else. People heard us talking about it, and they went, 'Yeah, sure, you're going to sell the place.' Nobody ever really quite believed it. We didn't quite believe it either. But now we do."
Olsen and Kiolbasa seem like more than adequate successors to the Kozins. Says Brian, "Between the two of them, there's enough fresh blood and enough old cobwebs to maintain the integrity of the atmosphere." Olsen has been a patron for 14 years. Her introduction to the No Exit, like that of so many others, came when she was a college student and needed a quiet place to study. A few years later, when she and a friend ran an antique store adjacent to the cafe, she became a regular. Eventually Olsen took on the Sunday afternoon waitress shift. She's now a substitute teacher but says owning the No Exit is a slightly higher calling.
Though less well-known around the cafe, Kiolbasa boasts a set of highly prized skills: he's a trained gourmet cook, specializing in savory meats. For the last four years he's been the head chef at the French consulate, and he runs a small private catering business on the side. He plans to start serving bistro food like homemade soups, Caesar salads, fish specials, a mashed potato with vegetables masterwork, eggs Benedict on Sundays, and occasional, but complex, pastries. No prices have been set yet, but Olsen maintains that the No Exit will still be cheap. "At last," Sue Kozin says, "there'll be a decent place to eat in the neighborhood."
But other than the transition from Moosewood Cookbook mishmash to more upscale cuisine, nothing will change significantly, Olsen says. There will still be open-mike music on Monday nights, open-mike poetry on Wednesday nights, improvisational theater by Bang Bang later on Wednesdays, and Michael Finnerty's jazz ensemble Bopzilla Friday nights and Sunday evenings. With the exception of the tiny kitchen, which will be redesigned and equipped with a new stove, Olsen plans to keep the decor intact. In any case, too many alterations would probably destroy the business. The Kozins have somewhat deliberately coddled change-resistant habitues that more conventional joints would turn away. "We tend to cater too much to the wishes of those who praise us without reason," says Brian. Olsen and Kiolbasa will inherit the libertarian geezers, clinically depressed anarchists, go players, Wiccans, and mentally unbalanced teenage poets who make up a good percentage of the cafe's clientele. They will also get any number of rusty trinkets, oddly sculpted bits of wood, outdated encyclopedias, pulp novels collected over several decades, and other yellowing ephemera that make up the No Exit's collective memory.
The Kozins' plan is to move to Casper, Wyoming, where they have good friends. Their youngest daughter, Amy, is scheduled to graduate from high school in 2001, and they may very well stay in Chicago until then. But, Brian says, "we know we're gonna be out of here in three and a half years, come hell or high water." In the warmer part of the year they hope to operate the No Exit Cafe of the Road, an RV that will scoot around to folk festivals, food festivals, rock and gem exhibitions, and gun expos across the country. "There's just tons of things out there with people camping," says Brian. "If we had the coffee cart when they wake up in the morning, I have a feeling we could do a fairly decent coffee business. Especially because we'd have the best coffee available for about 1,000 miles. I'm not even being boastful about that. Coffee out there in the heartland is so terrible. They just have no idea how to make good coffee."
For now, Brian will focus on his art, hang out, and maybe work part-time for a downtown jewelry merchant who he says admires his handmade rings. Sue plans to occasionally wait tables at the cafe. Brian may also work there from time to time, "to make the transition easier, make it known that there's a day where people can come in and see us. I wouldn't mind working a shift there for minimum wage. That's all we're making there anyway. It would be a real novelty to work a night there and come away with money that didn't have to go to pay bills for the cafe. I wouldn't even mind working as a dishwasher."
"It's very hard to sell this place," says Sue. "This has been our life. I've spent my entire adult life in the No Exit Cafe, from the time I was 21 years old and moved to Rogers Park. We've raised our children here. I got married here. We met here. I met my first husband here. But finally deciding has been such a great weight off our minds."
Says Brian, "It is a large responsibility keeping the No Exit open. It's not just the responsibility of keeping up a building. In a way, we're the patriarch and matriarch of this bizarre little counterculture that revolves around here. People do look at us as mom and dad in a lot of ways. It's like telling your children you're selling the house and moving to Alaska. Come and visit us if you can." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sue and Brian Kozin and exterior photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.