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Coffee Klatch : Proprietors set up their establishment because people need 'a third place' to be themselves between work and home.


Benjamin Talley and Judy Wahl look like perfect coffeehouse customers. They know their caffeine, their wardrobes run toward jeans and tennis shoes, and since the Insomniac Coffee House opened in November, they've been around almost every night, sipping and musing on penal reform or the Persian Gulf War or the unheard voices of Ventura's restless young.

But no one rings them up at the register and no one throws them out at closing time. They are the Insomniac's proprietors, a pair of erstwhile publishers who assert that people need "a third place" to be themselves between work and home.

By day, Talley and Wahl run Crossover Communications, which publishes a directory of social services for ex-offenders. By night, they hold court at 255 S. Laurel St., Ventura, staging poetry nights and acoustic jam sessions and offering espresso for $1.50.

The coffeehouse, in a cavernous space that once held the offices of the Ventura County Commission on Human Concerns, is open 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. every night but Sunday.

"I believe what really brought us to creating this was the Persian Gulf War," Wahl said. "We were very opposed to that, and we met a lot of people who didn't seem to have a voice. We realized, 'Oh, we do have a community here.' And after the war stuff sort of fizzled away, I started missing that. And we started this in a sense to recapture that feeling."

Their credentials are no more conventional than their motivation.

Wahl, 40, spent the early 1980s in state prison after a voluntary manslaughter conviction. (She participated in an attempted robbery led by a former boyfriend, she said, and someone was killed in the incident.)

After her release, she founded Sisters OutSide, an organization aimed at guiding ex-offenders in the transition to outside life. Since then, she has earned a bachelor's degree through the University of La Verne and a master's in clinical psychology from Antioch University in Santa Barbara.

She may be the only hostess in town who enlivens conversations with customers by saying, "When I first went to jail. . . ."

She met Talley, 47, at a 1988 conference on women in prison. He spent the 1980s as a prison librarian and, until recently, worked at the California Youth Authority's Ventura School in Camarillo. While working part time at the California Men's Colony San Luis Obispo a decade ago, Talley helped found a coffee-roasting company and coffeehouse.

But it wasn't until late last year, three years after meeting and forming Crossover Communications, that the two decided to open their own coffeehouse.

Their first location was a 300-square-foot corner of the Livery building in downtown Ventura, but they soured on the site after running into differences with their landlord. On Dec. 1, they moved to the Laurel Street location, which is 10 times as large.

The neighborhood west of Thompson Boulevard is industrial and ordinary. Inside the Insomniac, however, visitors find Green Party paraphernalia, a poster decrying President Bush as "King of the Petroletariat" and a score of colorful paintings by residents of Camarillo State Hospital. A patron plays the piano before a dozen thrift-store chairs. A weathered copy of "Yoga for Americans" is on a bookshelf.

"It looks like a sort of old, run-down residential hotel lobby," Wahl said cheerfully. So far, she and Talley are the only staff, though her mother, Rachel Otani, often drives down from Ojai to help out.

Wahl and Talley offer a fairly limited menu (it includes Martinelli's sparkling cider for 90 cents a glass, "nuke your own" chili rellenos for $1.25 and chicken burritos for $1.59), but pride themselves on their flexibility.

In a 15-line statement of patrons' rights and responsibilities, they endorse "free expression of speech through the spoken and written word, art, theater, music and silence," but delicately urge customers to keep "vocal, instrumental and electronic expression at a level which allows for normal conversation throughout the building."

Open reading nights have attracted crowds approaching 100, Talley said, including a Ventura River bottom resident who offered original poetry. A few weeks ago, Wahl took a turn up front, offering a condom demonstration that made use of the microphone as a prop. On another night, an 18-year-old customer stood to describe his mother's inquiries regarding his virginity.

"The young people in this area really want to be heard," Talley said.

"We've created a place where people can come and read and say what they feel and think, and have themselves heard by other people," Wahl said. "There aren't enough of those places in society these days."

Someday, Talley and Wahl say, they'd like to run the coffeehouse and their publishing operation as part of a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting culture and fighting the cycle of abuse in unstable families. But they also have an alternative plan.

"If all else fails," Wahl said, "we're going to buy a houseboat, move to Seattle and eat fresh fish every day."

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