Quiet South Slope Cafe Serves Rock Star Clientele

By Leslie Albrecht on January 25, 2013 7:10am 

GREENWOOD HEIGHTS — At first glance, the cozy Roots Cafe on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street looks like a typical Brooklyn coffee shop, with customers quietly tapping on computers while they sip Stumptown coffee.

But scratch beneath the surface of lattes-and-laptops and you'll find another side to the tiny cafe — it doubles as a hangout for some big names in the music industry.

The likes of The National, Neko Case, Swell, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird and the lead singers of St. Vincent, The Dresden Dolls, TV on the Radio and My Brightest Diamond have all been customers at the South Slope coffee shop, which is tucked between a tax service and a travel agency on a less trendy stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Some of the musically talented patrons live in the neighborhood. The bands Yeasayer and Elvis Perkins in Dearland, and the singers Haley Dekle of The Dirty Projectors and Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult are all locals who've enjoyed Roots' joe, owner Jamey Hamm said.

The cafe also serves a steady stream of talented types who wander over from Seaside Lounge, a recording studio in the Madarts artists' building at 255 18th St. The studio, inside a nondescript white building, has worked with popular bands like Beirut, Okkervil River and They Might Be Giants.

Roots owner Jamey Hamm doesn't publicize the cafe's high-profile clientele, but press him and he'll list an impressive array of singers and songwriters who've walked through the front door.

The small cafe seats just 25 customers, many of whom use the space for working on their laptops. Hamm said most of his customers seem oblivious to the musical greatness in their midst, and he's never seen anyone ask one of the musicians for an autograph.

"People are so focused on their work, I don't think they would notice if the president walked in," Hamm said.

But Hamm and the baristas who serve the musicians at the cafe's counter definitely notice the famous patrons, though Hamm admitted he's sometimes too shy to say anything. Silver-voiced singer Neko Case came in "about 10 times" before Hamm, an Alabama native who's retained his Southern accent, screwed up the courage to acknowledge her presence.

"I finally said, 'Just so you know, I know who you are and I love your music,'" Hamm said. "Her response was, 'Awesome. I love your chai latte.'"

Sometimes the encounters are slightly awkward. Sufjan Stevens wore his bike helmet for the entire time he visited the cafe. The staff wasn't sure whether it was a disguise, Hamm said.

When the drummer from The National walked in recently while the band was recording at Seaside Lounge, a song by the band popped up — coincidentally — on the cafe's 1,000-track playlist.

"It was kind of embarrassing, but it's kind of a compliment too, to the band," Hamm said.

Hamm is a musician himself who performs under the name Brother Hamm and The Pentecostals at local venues like Bar 4 and The Rock Shop. He and his wife packed up a U-Haul and moved to New York from Tuscaloosa, Ala. several years ago and he opened Roots in 2008.

His goal was to create a space to nurture art and music. Aside from selling coffee, sandwiches and cheesy grits, the cafe displays work by neighborhood artists and sells products like soap, lotion and leather goods made by locals.

But the real heart of the enterprise is music. Roots hosts live music every Thursday and Friday night, usually with local bands. A band that played their first show at Roots, The Lone Bellow, made their TV debut this week on the Conan O'Brien show.

Once a month there's a hip-hop night hosted by Rabbi Darkside, and on the first Wednesday of every month there's an event called The South Slope Sing-along, where musician Chris Q. Murphy hands out binders of songs and then plays whatever the audience requests on the piano or guitar.

Hamm said he gets a kick out of the well-known musicians who visit the cafe, but he's most proud of the mini music scene that's developed around Roots.

"My goal from the beginning was to create a space for conversation and for creativity," Hamm said. "We've definitely achieved that. If I set out to get rich, I've failed, but, if I've set out to create an artistic environment in a great community, I've definitely succeeded."

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