Nestled on Columbia’s upper campus beneath the stately stained glass windows of St. Paul’s Chapel lies an underground world colored by folk music, friendship and history. Since 1964, Postcrypt Coffeehouse has made its home in the basement of St. Paul’s, where the exposed brick walls and hazy strings of lights set the laidback tone for the student-run acoustic music venue, which hosts twice-weekly concerts from September to May. The 2014-2015 academic year marked half a century of Postcrypt bringing performers from Columbia, New York City and beyond to grace the stage in its intimate performance space, including the likes of Suzanne Vega BC’81, Jeff Buckley, Dar Williams and Ani DiFranco.
The ’Crypt, as it is colloquially known, forms a treasured Columbia tradition. “For over 50 years, the venue has been free and open to the public,” explains Head Manager Spenser Krut CC’16. “We host two shows every weekend during the school year, as well as folk festivals in the fall and spring.” Though located on Columbia's campus, the draw of the venue is not limited to current students; the shows are open to alumni and the public as well. “Many of our regular audience members attended Columbia in years past and enjoy coming back again and again because Postcrypt's doors are still open,” says Krut.
A performance by singer Eva Rubin at Postcrypt Coffeehouse in Fall 2015. Photo: Chloé Durkin CC’15
Postcrypt is unique, not only for the longevity of its appeal, but also for how far that appeal extends. Though the artists presented at Postcrypt are primarily from New York, the lineup also frequently features performers from New England and even brings in artists from outside of the United States. Audience members are drawn to the venue from all over New York City. “Postcrypt Coffeehouse brings together the Columbia community and city residents,” Krut notes, “as well as [uniting] current students with previous generations of students.”
The venue’s legacy was recently immortalized in a zine publication created by Postcrypt’s 2014-2015 executive board to honor the 50 year history of artistry and community. “We decided to commemorate Postcrypt Coffeehouse’s 50th anniversary with a zine publication because we wanted to showcase the history of the venue through the words and images of people who love the space as much as we do,” says Krut. “We gathered all the content from [the] Columbia archives, previous managers, performers and audience members and then … assemble[d] the publication.”
In keeping with the culture of Postcrypt and what Outreach Manager Mahelet Fekade CC’16 calls the unofficial Postcrypt motto — “people coming together to experience free, chill vibes” — anyone with a connection, official or unofficial, to Postcrypt was encouraged to submit to the zine via Postcrypt’s website.
The end product includes photos from past performances as well as notes from audience members, student volunteers and artists who played at Postcrypt over the years, including Vega, whose handwritten note to the group reads, in part, “I did play Postcrypt many times [and] I have fond memories of it.”
Connor Moore CC’19 and Savannah May BC’17 work at Postcrypt’s coffee bar. Photo: Chloé Durkin CC’15
Printed copies of the zine were sold for $1 to attendees of Postcrypt’s spring Folk Fest, and a free digital copy will be made available during the 2015-2016 academic year.
Postcrypt has made offering music and entertainment free of charge and in an intimate space — Postcrypt fits just 30 people — its primary focus. This has drawn artists and audiences alike; as Richard Meyer notes in a 1991 interview included in the anniversary zine, “[W]hat makes the Postcrypt so inviting is the opportunity for an audience to hear a performer absolutely live and physically within reach.”
“Every performance is intimate and clear,” Krut says. “It's special because every show is unplugged and the performers visibly relax as if they're just playing and chatting with friends in their living rooms.”
Postcrypt’s dedication to keeping their concerts free means audience members from all walks of life come to shows. “[On April 5,] I was walking towards the sundial, where [the Spring 2015] Folk Fest was held, right before the Morningsiders [a campus-founded band that consists of Magnus Ferguson CC’14, Reid Jenkins CC’14, David Su CC’14 and Cody Gibson] started to play, and I was struck by how many people showed up to see them perform,” says Fekade. “I had the goofiest grin during the Morningsiders entire set. It was great to see people coming together.”
Though fifty years of music has been played in the St. Paul’s basement, not much about the space has changed. Both the stage and mosaic bar are the same ones that originally graced the venue, and many of the original tables and chairs have survived. As the only space of its kind on campus — and one of the oldest surviving coffeehouses in the city — Postcrypt has, according to Fekade, developed and preserved a culture entirely unto itself. “The ’Crypt is my favorite place on campus,” she says. “When you are in the ’Crypt it doesn't feel like you are on campus or in Morningside Heights. It's an oasis.”
Thanks to the dedicated student volunteers working to continue the Postcrypt tradition, Postcrypt hopes to maintain its place in the cultural fabric of Columbia and New York City for many years to come. “Postcrypt Coffeehouse hopes to provide free concerts for the Morningside Heights and Columbia community for another 50 years,” says Krut, “…so that future generations of students and music-lovers can enjoy the beautiful space and performances as much as previous generations.”
Chloé Durkin CC’15 is a freelance writer and producer based in Brooklyn, NY.