If you’ve ever attended a show at Caffè Lena, you’ll know that you don’t sit in velvety theater seats or expertly manicured rows of metal folding chairs. Rather, you find your way to nondescript, black chairs that circle rustic, handcrafted wooden tables. If you’re the observant type, you’ll notice that, etched on the majority of those tables, is a name or names, along with an inscription. It’s one of the space’s many idiosyncrasies that gives it a truly communal, you’ve-got-a-friend-type vibe.
With the exception of the table where a pre-fame Bob Dylan was photographed sitting with his then-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, and the venue’s owner, Lena Spencer, in the early 1960s, when he played a pair of shows there, all of the other tables have the names and inscriptions engraved right into the wood (Dylan’s table is has a laminated top, which is then inscribed). It’s not by accident; when Caffè Lena launched its fundraising drive to pay for its eventual $2 million renovation, the tables were sold in the form of patron sponsorships. If you’ve ever wondered who the names are on the tables and what the story is behind their inscriptions, wonder no more. In a new, independently published book, Storied Tables of Caffè Lena—which is now available here for free download; or, if you can find one, in physical, coffee-table format—Saratoga couple (and frequent Caffè Lena patrons) Kathleen Rehl and Charlie Pickett have profiled all of the table-sponsoring patrons, telling their intriguing stories through short, informative chapters.
Now both retired, Rehl and Pickett, actually dreamed up the concept two years after the space had been renovated in 2016, at a concert they were attending together. “At intermission, we walked around and we were just fascinated by the lyrics or sayings [on the tables], and I asked [Executive Director] Sarah [Craig], ‘Do you how people picked these lyrics, or why they said what they did on the table?'” says Rehl. “And she said, ‘I don’t know.'” Rehl, who was already a published author, kept thinking about what Craig had said through the second half of the show, and says that by the end of the show, she “was just on fire.” She knew she needed to write the book. “I talked to Charlie and I said, ‘This is a story that has to be told,'” says Rehl. They pitched the idea to Craig right then and there, and Craig was interested. They then went down to Florida for the winter, and upon returning to Saratoga in the spring of 2019, reminded Craig of the idea, she ran it by the board of directors and the book project got the green light, with full support from its donor list. In all, Rehl and Pickett tracked down the donor or donors that sponsored 16 tables and interviewed all of them for the book.
So, what will you find within the book’s pages? There are chapters on everyone from D.A. Collins Construction Owner David Collins, and his wife, Stephanie, who sponsored a table that has a lyric from The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” inscribed on it; local author Joseph Bruchac, whose inscription is taken from the final seconds of the song “We Are the Iroquois” by his Grammy-winning singer-songwriter friend Joanne Shenandoah; and Deborah and Dexter Senft, whose table features a lyric by their son’s folk group Darlingside, who have performed at the venue a number of times throughout the years (it’s from the tune “The Ancestor,” if you were wondering). Two separate chapters also walk readers through the process of how the tables were engraved by artists Kelsi Lee and Julia K. Johnson.
Maybe the most touching chapter—and relevant, given the times—comes from Rehl and Pickett themselves, who sponsored one of the last two tables at the venue in 2018. (The idea to do it came on that same night they decided to put together the book.) Engraved on their table’s top is a line from the Wizard of Oz‘s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which the couple write “[is a] song…about hope, that bad times will be overcome.” Both know a thing or two about love, loss and silver linings: Pickett lost his first wife 18 years ago, while Rehl, her husband 13 years ago. The two widowers met on eharmony while Pickett was wintering in Florida and got married in 2018. It was Pickett that introduced his wife to his favorite Saratoga venue (he’s been attending shows there since ’65). The table was a way of commemorating their new life together.
Pickett explains that he and his wife wanted to publish the book this year, in time for the 60th anniversary of the venue, and give it to Craig to use as a thank-you to donors and as a way of helping to promote a new planned giving program. While the COVID-19 crisis has derailed the book’s intended purpose, it couldn’t be coming out at a more important time in the venue’s history. Now, more ever before, Caffè Lena, which is a nonprofit organization, is in need of funding, given New York State’s recent indefinite ban of ticketed/promoted live events. Ironically, this is despite the fact that the venue was deemed “essential” in late April and has been the lone music venue in the Capital Region able to host live, spectator-less shows, which it has been streaming on its YouTube page as “Stay Home Sessions.”
So, even if audiences can’t sit and marvel at these wonderful tables anytime soon, this book will serve as a reminder of what will be possible when they can return. And oh, what a sweet day that will be when it comes.