The College by the Cup: Harper Café

A social haven for UChicagoans, with consistency where it counts.
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015

For decades, UChicago's student-run coffee shops have given community members space to congregate (and caffeinate) on their own terms. The cafés started small—Ex Libris began as a pair of vending machines when the Regenstein Library first opened in the early 1970s—but over the years, their role on campus has become paramount. In this series, we explore the unique atmospheres of UChicago's five student-run coffee shops: Ex Libris, Cobb Café, Hallowed Grounds, Harper Café, and Grounds of Being. Previously: Hallowed Grounds.

Name: Harper Café, or Common Knowledge Café

Location: Harper Memorial Library, East Tower, third floor

Manager: Phil Brown, Class of 2015

Atmosphere: warm and comfy

Soundtrack: anything from hip-hop to classical

Staff favorite: mint tea

Go for: good vibes and good drinks

The Arley D. Cathey Learning Center has made its name as one of the most beautiful study spaces in the world—but who caffeinates the hard-working students within? Next door to the famously Hogwarts-esque reading room sits the Common Knowledge Café, where students, faculty, and administrators alike flock for warm drinks and warm company. This location was once home to the Harper Library circulation desk, but no one is likely to shush you there today. Walk through the Learning Center's double doors and you could hear a pin drop, but the adjacent coffee shop is always abuzz with the soft chatter of friends catching up.

The café serves as a social haven for UChicagoans enjoying a study break or unwinding after a long day of class. But for many regulars, Harper offers more than just a convenient location: manager Phil Brown says those who frequent the coffee shop "keep coming back because they like the space." And it's not just the comfy chairs and natural light that makes the atmosphere so inviting. The tight-knit student staff's friendly vibes also draw in customers, many of whom make an effort to get to know the baristas behind the counter.

Every year the Harper managers make sure their new hires represent a healthy mix of interests, ages, and social circles. Mixing it up keeps things interesting for the staff (who develop close bonds both on-the-clock and off), as well as for their patrons. Baristas double as DJs during their shifts and play their own music, which makes for an eclectic set of soundtracks throughout the day.

For the more adventurous coffee connoisseurs, employees also bring their individuality to drink-making. Creative concoctions occasionally catch on, like a latte-Chinese Breakfast hybrid nicknamed the "China Smog," a play on the London Fog. But while Harper workers have been known to experiment with their craft, café patrons can expect consistency where it counts: youll find tasty treats and a welcoming ambiance any time you duck in for a meeting or a drink.

Tagged: coffee shops, The College by the Cup