Time moves slowly at Kaffeehaus, a café and lending library tucked away in a quiet, leafy suburban neighborhood, just across from Nogawa Park in Chofu, Tokyo. The natural warmth of wood is reflected in the interior design, with cozy nooks inviting patrons to curl up with a book and a slice of one of the luscious German-style cakes made by owner Birgit Zorb-Serizawa. On fine days patrons can sit in the garden and admire a variety of cacti that Birgit’s husband Toshi grows.
The entire back wall of the café is lined with a plethora of books in various languages, free for anyone to browse through or borrow. Many were collected by the globetrotting Birgit during a career in special education that spanned 35 years and four continents. Opened in June 2020, Kaffeehaus is the culmination of a long-cherished dream to create a community space and a permanent home for her library.
Books Have Always Brought People Together
Birgit hails from Germany, but met Toshi when they were both volunteering in Borneo in the early 1980s. Following their marriage, they crisscrossed the world for the next 20 years for their studies and for his work in international development, before settling in Fuchu, Tokyo in 2004 with their daughter Mine and an extensive collection of books.
Pondering over how to make the most of her beloved books, Birgit drew inspiration from her family’s three-year stint in Harare, Zimbabwe. “Parents would commune under a big jacaranda tree at the Harare International School to exchange information about school and life in this community and to learn more about each other’s lives in the process,” she recalls. “We would also exchange books or recommend good reading material to each other and the idea of a coffee to go with the conversation was enticing.”
In 2006 Birgit and Mine set up a mobile lending library and community service project which they named “Book Ideas.”
“It was an opportunity to bring our books to curious readers, connect with neighbors and make friends, share experiences from home and abroad and find my own feet in Tokyo.”
Book Ideas operated out of a local community center, but Birgit couldn’t store her books there permanently. Not owning a car, she and Mine transported the books back and forth by hand in a wagon for each monthly meeting. Book Ideas continued as a side project for over a decade while Birgit worked as a special education teacher and counselor for Tokyo’s international community.
The Conception of Kaffeehaus
After her daughter left to study abroad, however, Birgit grew tired of transporting the books on her own each month. Retirement from her teaching career offered the chance to finally focus on her next step. “I developed the idea for the café with my husband who was looking for space to expand his cacti garden,” she says with a smile.
“We would like to think that Kaffeehaus is for everyone. Whether you are a bookworm, a conversationalist, or a parent with kids, a person with or without a disability. Maybe you are looking for a peaceful garden in which to read and drink coffee. Or you are simply a person who is curious about other people, countries and lifestyles.”
After finding the ideal location for what would become Kaffeehaus downstairs and their new home upstairs, the couple chose an architect well-versed in eco-friendly materials and techniques. “Since my background is in special education, it was very important for the space to be accessible for most people. The entire café, including the bathroom, is fully wheelchair accessible,” Birgit points out.
Weathering the Pandemic Storm
Covid-19 threw some curveballs at Kaffeehaus, delaying the opening for several months. “Actually, it worked out fine because Mine was home at that time. She could help with all the last-minute preparation and also teach me the skills she had picked up working as a barista while in college,” Birgit notes. “The hard part of starting a business during the pandemic was learning how to make the space safe. And on slow days, not knowing whether it was just a normal business that was up and down in terms of sales, or if it was due to Covid-19.”
After 18 months in business, Birgit’s confidence has blossomed and she is thoroughly enjoying her role as a café owner. Kaffeehaus attracts an eclectic clientele. From people in the neighborhood and students at the nearby American school and local universities, to those who travel a considerable distance for the books or the chance to speak in English and German.
Kaffeehaus also hosts regular events, including discussion meetings, book groups, a crafters circle and storytelling sessions for children.
At a time when increasing numbers of people are turning to their devices for reading, Birgit believes that an experience like the one provided at Kaffeehaus is more important than ever. “It’s the visual, tactile and aesthetic pleasure of looking at a title page, opening a book and reading the pages. Even little kids can pull a book from a shelf to look at. Or share with an adult,” she says. And the experience is made all the better with a cup of coffee and a slice of Birgit’s cake.
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