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The middle of a scorching summer seems like the worst possible time to open a coffee shop and art space. Especially since, restricted by anal Tempe business ordinances about announcing your "grand opening," you don't dare advertise the place until students come back to Arizona State University.
But Three Roots is such a soothing, non-corporate addition to the increasingly stupid Mill Avenue scene, it's getting a quick following based simply on word of mouth.
Part of its early success is surely because of its comfort -- walk inside and you'll feel like you're in someone's living room. On a recent afternoon, the air conditioning was set at a comfortable temperature, there were several fans blowing around the room, and Radiohead was playing on the stereo. The walls and concrete floor have been sponge-painted a mix of burnt red and orange, and the whole shop has been furnished with an eclectic mix of plush couches and spacious tables.
Owners Robin Bundy and her son, ASU senior Yari, originally opened the place as an art gallery, Neti Neti, to front Robin's custom framing business, The Mat Corner. But Robin, a spunky Illinois native, says the idea for a combo coffee joint and gallery grew out of a purely economic reality.
"People would come in, look around at the pictures for a few minutes, and then leave," she says. "And I would think, No! Don't leave. Stay and hang out.'"
According to Bundy family legend, one night Robin and Yari were having second thoughts about opening Three Roots; they didn't have enough money and they didn't know where they were going to get furniture for the shop.
"If we're supposed to do this, then the furniture will appear," Robin said to Yari.
The next morning, when she was pulling out of her driveway, a pair of large bamboo chairs and a metal rack perfect for shelving coffee supplies were sitting in a nearby alley. The Java Gods seemed to be smiling.
All of the couches, ottomans and chairs in Three Roots have either been found around the nearby Maple-Ash neighborhood or have been donated by friends.
The result is an unintentionally functional art gallery.
In one corner, next to a black straight-backed chair from a law firm where Robin's sister used to work, is a sherbet-colored leopard that serves as the base of a glass tabletop. When Yari's friend gave it to him, it was shiny black marble and looked like it belonged to a Mafia boss, so Robin gave the leopard a new funky overcoat. On the other side of the room is a large wooden table where séances have been held in the past. And a jolly concrete Buddha statue greets customers as they walk in the front door.
"People ask us, What did you guys design this place after?'" she says. "And we tell them that this is just the way we feel comfortable. We want people to be able to sit around, drink coffee and live with the art."
Until the gallery's official debut in August, the Bundys have put up an interim art show. (The city of Tempe allows businesses one 14-day "grand opening" period. The Bundys figure they can't afford to use up theirs until students return to town. Otherwise, Yari says, they'd be making a bigger deal of the gallery in the summer.)
Like the furniture, the art is a community effort. A black-and-white photo of a downtrodden African-American woman hovering over abandoned railroad tracks was taken by Felix Sorte, a bouncer at Casey Moore's, the neighborhood bar. On the same wall hangs a neon watercolor of a rainbow-coifed woman, by Phoenix artist Joi Speck; it used to hang over Yari's record collection at home. The rest is a haphazard mix of paintings, sepia photographs and mixed-media pieces.
After the official grand opening next month, Yari says the gallery will showcase a mix of student and local artwork in monthly shows. And for the first time, they'll be able to advertise.
They might even go crazy and put a sandwich board out front. If they can find one.