Smiles and Sensibility Reenter Central Square Scene

Natalia Cooper

Mama Gaia’s Café

401 Massachusetts Avenue

Central Square Cambridge

It was on a whim that I entered Mama Gaia’s Café. It was around 10:30 PM, on a Sunday night. Some friends and I had a coffee craving that needed fixing and I was starving to boot. We took a chance on this bright coffee shop, located off the beaten path of Mass Ave a few feet, near Toscanini’s, and were pleasantly surprised.

The atmosphere is warm and very inviting. There was comfortable, casual furniture throughout, giving the feel of an outdoor café brought inside. A wicker couch with cushions is set back against a wall when you first walk in; a coffee table strewn with magazines and other literature in front of it. In another corner, a small bookcase holds community interest leaflets, chapbooks donated by local poets, and a biography of Brother Blue, a storyteller/activist and something of a Cambridge celebrity.

Two or three tables with full chess set-ups are sprinkled throughout. The white poles holding up the ceiling are wrapped with leaf garlands, close to a dozen plants are placed around the seating area. There are outlets for laptops at every table adjacent to the wall, and two computers at the back with “Free, Fast Internet Service for customers”. Good acid/fusion jazz was playing when we first entered, followed by Pink Floyd, followed by Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. The music remained at a comfortable and audible level, loud enough to hear the music and low enough to enjoy studying or conversation.

The kitchen is visible and pristine. You can see your food being put together from below a brown rattan shade pulled up to expose the work area of the chefs. The concave ceiling is painted with wispy cirrus clouds against a pale blue sky. The walls are painted in soft but bright blue, orange, red and pale yellow. They are bare now but the owners want to have art up within the next few weeks. Also planned are community meetings, poetry readings, and live music.

For the opening they had two days of free, live music. Mama Gaia’s owners also lease the space next door to 401 Mass Ave, where Mojo Music used to be, and will expand the seating area into that space soon. They just opened in mid-November and the response has been very positive according to the owners. How could it not be?

Before Central Square became inundated with mall plucked apparel stores and “developments”, it was a cultural center. Over the past ten years of my life I have watched it slowly change. Lucy Parsons Center was forced out, the Mass Army Navy Supply Store left. Many of the businesses have changed ownership due to the constant rent struggles for which Cambridge is notorious. Remember what Harvard Square used to be like before the university bought it all out and raised rents to encourage places like Abercrombie and Fitch to open their doors? It was wonderful and fun and eclectic. Central Square has resisted better than most places in greater Boston, but it too has fallen victim to some cultural homogenization.

Mama Gaia serves to fill the hole in my heart, which has been gaping ever since the amazing Phoenix Coffeehouse was forced out of Central due to high rents. It makes me mourn. The workers there smile and start conversations, are excited to discuss the business, the surrounding area, and the owners’ vision.

They are open early until late everyday of the week. ( From 7 AM to 12 AM on Sunday through Wednesday and from 7 AM to 1 AM on Thursday through Saturday) All these descriptions would lead one to believe Mama Gaia is some sort of coffeehouse utopia …well, it is.

The menu is ample and inexpensive. No entrée exceeds six dollars and the food is healthy and fresh, everything is cooked from scratch. The most expensive sandwich is $5.75, but most prices hover closer to $4 or $4.50. I had a Vegetarian Volcano for $4: a whole-wheat burrito stuffed with organic black beans, spicy tofu, pico de gallo, white cheddar cheese and fresh vegetables, served with sour cream and homemade salsa. It tasted like real home-cooked food so much that when I took a bite I said, “This tastes like mama food,” out loud while I was chewing. (I guess hence the name Mama Gaia’s.) There are at least six vegetarian dishes, and twelve or thirteen non-vegetarian, but still fresh and healthy dishes. All the fare is presented, with full listings of the delicious ingredients, in brightly colored chalk on a large blackboard on the wall behind the counter. They also have half a dozen salad options and serve breakfast in the mornings.

They offer a full range of coffee and espresso drinks, all of which are less than $4. Most are between $1.35 and $3.15. (The most expensive is a Chai Latte for $3.75) My soy mocha was excellent, and the soy didn’t cost any extra like it does at Starbucks or Peet’s. They even have authentic Yerba Mate, a strong South American tea, rarely found on such menus. There is information posted at both registers about the coffee company Mama Gaia’s buys their beans from.

Dean’s Beans is a fair trade coffee manufacturer who “work[s] with coffee communities to address critical health, nutrition, and educational need based on local priorities.” They also offer a selection of teas by a Somerville-based brand called Irie Naturals?. Irie is a handcrafter of herbal tea blends, the teas are “medicinally minded” and Irie is committed to using organically grown herbs whenever possible. Irie Naturals? is dedicated to organic farming, a position which is in their company’s mission statement; placed for all to see.

I spoke to the owners at length. It seems like this place is a dream come true for them and they want to make it a comfortable gathering place for people of all cultures. They are open to ideas and suggestions and are genuinely really nice people trying to open a coffeehouse amidst huge conglomerates and amoral capitalist consumption. Hell, I liked the place so much I even filled out an application while I was there, it was just that great.