SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The first sign that Caffè Lena is different from other joints where guitars are strummed and coffee is sipped comes before you even enter the place. Next to it, off a picturesque side street here, runs Lena Lane, an alleyway commemorating the club and the woman who ran it and became a local legend.
Since 1960, tiny, unprepossessing Caffè Lena has hosted thousands of folk musicians, from first timers at the weekly open mike to Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Bob Dylan, who, by most accounts, played his first out-of-town show there after arriving in New York City.
Now Caffè Lena and its proprietor, Lena Spencer, who died in 1989, are being celebrated with an exhaustively researched coffee-table book, CD boxed set and an audio archive destined for the Library of Congress. Together they make a case for the club as a landmark outpost of folk music in America, and for Spencer as a sharp-eyed and nurturing force for the music.
The book, “Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse,” just published by powerHouse Books, is the result of 11 years of work by Jocelyn Arem, 31, who first walked up the club’s narrow staircase on an open mike night as a sophomore at nearby Skidmore College.