The University of St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center soon will have its own “penny university” – a coffee shop.

Project planning is under way with Minneapolis architectural firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle and Opus Northwest contractors for the shop, which should open in February 2010. Look for construction to begin right after final exams in December 2009.

The coffee shop will be located right in the thick of things: at the south end of the library’s Reference Room, on the main floor adjacent to the old east entrance. The counter will be visible from the library’s main entrance and convenient to its beloved “leather room.”

Coffee Bené, owned and operated by the same people who own and operate Davanni’s Pizza and Hot Hoagies, will operate the shop, making coffee and hiring and supervising the staff. 

St. Thomas and Coffee Bené both will benefit, according to Mark Vangsgard, vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer. “Our arrangement gives Coffee Bené a fair return, and we’ll be able to recover our construction costs in a reasonable period of time,” Vangsgard said. “It’s important to note, however, that we’re not creating a coffee shop to increase St. Thomas’ revenues, but to support students, faculty and staff in a cost-efficient way.”

Students, faculty and staff frequent Coffee Bené, located next door to Davanni’s flagship Cleveland Avenue restaurant, for meetings and relaxation. The St. Thomas shop will be Coffee Bené’s first “satellite” location.

According to Coffee Bené general manager Molly Krueger, UST students and faculty who like to study and work at the Cleveland Avenue  location will find Wi-Fi and better seating in the library’s shop. Coffee Bené’s Cleveland shop also hopes to attract more neighborhood traffic, so a shop at St. Thomas makes sense, businesswise. “Any time a business gets an opportunity to try something new, that’s awesome,” Krueger said. “We’re really excited about this opportunity to work with St. Thomas.”

Look for brewed coffees, espressos, lattés, mochas and pastries at the new shop – but not smoothies. Making those is too noisy for a library.

Reading, writing, studying and conversation have a bond with coffee-houses that goes back to 18th century London, says library director Dan Gjelten. “I love the notion of the ‘third place’ – not the home and not the workplace, but a space where we go voluntarily to be with other people – an anchor of the neighborhood, the community square, the town square. … The ‘third place’ is important for a healthy community,” Gjelten said. “I think the library itself is a kind of ‘third place’ on campus – not the classroom or the dorm room or the faculty office, but a place where the community can gather and talk and share ideas.”

So, what’s this “penny university” thing?

London’s coffee shops came to be called “penny universities” in the 18th century. For that price, you could buy a cup of coffee and get an education. “Each coffeehouse specialized in a different type of clientele,” wrote Mark Pendergrast in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (Basic Books, 1999). “In one, physicians could be consulted. Others served Protestants, Puritans, Catholics, Jews, literati, merchants, traders, fops, Whigs, Tories, army officers, actors, lawyers, clergy, or wits. The coffeehouses provided England’s first egalitarian meeting place, where a man was expected to chat with his tablemates whether he knew them or not.”

That’s the kind of place Gjelten envisions. “Having coffee in [the library] just keeps the people longer,” Gjelten said. “It keeps them alert and serves as the stimulant for conversation and ideas and creativity.”