Through thick and thin, Austin's Coffee's open mic nights carry a lovely tune

In 2005, Sean Moore, his brother Steve and Jackie Oswalt scrounged up enough money to buy a dodgy coffeehouse at 929 W. Fairbanks Ave. Only a year after rescuing the place from bankruptcy, Moore opened shop one morning and pronounced the Austin's Coffee experiment dead. A late-night burglary had stripped the countertops and cupboards clean, and there was ano recovering.

“They took everything. I was done,” Moore says. “And the building couldn't have looked any shittier than it did before, because we'd lacked the capital to fix it in the first place. I called my brother to help sweep up, and we were high-fiving and saying, ‘This is it. Our hands are washed of this now.'”

But then an Austin's Coffee regular read about the break-in on Myspace and stopped by to donate a pair of laptops. Another customer arrived shortly thereafter with cutlery and glassware. Next was the spare cash register, then the rolls of coin to feed it. By day's end, Moore had everything his café needed.

“The [local] community is the reason we're open, and it humbles me everyday,” he says. “I'm a coffee guy, and I'm telling you, coffee is not what we do here. We want to build a place for people to feel welcome and safe, and we want to give back.”

Roasting all-organic, fair-trade-certified coffee grounds in-house certainly helps. A bin stocked with beans from Nicaragua's Segovia region perches in front of the espresso machine. Blends of tea with names like “Iron Goddess of Mercy” are displayed in tins that customers can sift through while waiting in line. The decor entails a lovable scatter of furniture – old movie theater seats, hand-painted chairs and tables, a purple Willy Wonka-esque sofa for lounging.

But Austin's Coffee gets as much love for their open mic amateur nights, which fill most evenings with a different flavor of music or spoken-word performance every week. (Orlando Weekly recognized the series as the best around in 2009 and 2011.)

“It's like a carnival here on Tuesday nights,” Orlando resident Taylor Tessitore says. She's performed at Austin's singer-songwriter night, the “crown jewel” of the series, for almost three years. “There's so much energy and so many people. Some weeks, I'll arrive two hours early to sign up and all the slots will be full. It's crazy, but everyone is always so friendly and supportive of everyone.”

The wealth of local talent that's budded there over the years is noteworthy. While most open mic nights devolve into a DIY karaoke groaner, these backyard artists – like singer-songwriter Drew Yardis and The Glee Project season 2 contestant Dani Shay – have elevated Austin's Coffee beyond that. A crummy 10-channel mixer and speaker become an easel and canvas on Austin's window-front stage.

“My buddy was working [at Austin's] back in the day, and there was a lot of live music that was coming in and out of there,” Yardis says. “I felt like it was a good spot to start playing.”

Yardis first picked up his guitar and started dabbling in songwriting while he was in high school. He spent years honing his skills at Austin's open mic nights and other local hot spots, eventually landing lead vocal and rhythm guitar duties for the ambient alt-rock outfit Mirror Pal. Now, after playing venues like the Social, Back Booth and Hard Rock Live, Yardis has recorded a solo album, Unto You, with his new quartet, the Drew Yardis Project.

“Austin's has definitely bloomed,” he says. “It definitely attracts a lot of musicgoers and people that really appreciate art. It gives an artist a place to come in and play in front of people. I have seen some people come out of here and go on to pretty awesome things.”

Artists can also noodle along to covers on singer-songwriter Tuesdays, but you won't hear much yowling to “Piano Man,” unless there's an accordion or ocarina lurking somewhere in the background. Acoustic romps through songs like R. Kelly's “Ignition” and Rebecca Black's “Friday” are deliciously clever without collapsing under their own self-awareness. The performers brim with genuinely earned verve, running crayons across walls for the sweet mischief of it, for instance, while somehow eluding the snobbish stereotypes embraced at other coffeehouses.

That's because at Austin's, the forum itself, the physical venue, the friendly exchange between artist and audience, is more integral than any single performance or artist.

“It brings everyone together,” Moore says. “It gives a big place like Orlando a small-town feel. You get stranded out there without it.”

Moore himself got lost in the urban din after he moved from his native New England years ago. As a green 22-year-old, he longed for something reminiscent of the cobblestone roads and huddled coffeehouses up north. It took time, but eventually he stumbled onto the little shop on Fairbanks.

“Austin's was in real bad shape then – leaky ceiling, patched-up walls, all that,” Moore recalls. “The place had an energy about it, like it does now, but it couldn't draw the people. Now I feel we've grown our community here.”

Moore is clearly devoted to the city that embraced his endeavor, but he also understands the difficulties of carving out a life here, where the most many people take in is a travel itinerary and some suntan lotion. Family and friends ebb and flow through Orlando like the tourists who flock to and from its amusement parks.

Moore hopes the coffeehouse and open mic night series adds consistency to a transient town.

“Orlando is like a small town trapped in a big city,” he says. “There are so many distractions, but everyone just wants to connect with someone, on some level. Whether you're coming or going, I think we provide a space where you'll be heard.”

The series continues to bring new artists into the fold, adding additional nights and expanding the Austin's family even further.

“Before we added a hip-hop open mic night on Mondays, nobody in Orlando offered those guys a venue to get together and perform,” Moore says. “But it's been awesome to see that scene get tighter over the weeks since we started hosting them. I was hesitant at first, but now it's my favorite night.”

“This place transformed my life,” he adds. “Austin's Coffee is a transparent, complete representation of me: the local art we showcase here, the coffee we serve, the atmosphere we create. It's so liberating to be honest with yourself and those you care about. I just hope we can bring that to everyone else.”

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