This is The Interval. It’s a beautiful bar and cafe in San Francisco. It’s also a museum, library, and steampunk wonderland dedicated to fostering discussions of big concepts.
“You can’t tell people to think long term. We want people to interact with a space and come to it however they want,” says Alexander Rose, Executive Director of the Long Now Foundation. The foundation, a non-profit dedicated to long-term thought, decided to create a café and bar in their San Francisco headquarters to spur on discussion of interaction, availability, and openness over the next 10,000 years. Walking into the striking sanctuary they’ve created, it is clear that everything has a long story behind it.
The Long Now Foundation has had an office in Fort Mason, in the northwest corner of San Francisco, for almost two decades, and until recently, the ground floor held only a library and museum. The organization’s popular seminars, hosted by writer Stewart Brand, routinely sell out hundreds of seats. These large events are great, but they lack the intimacy that engenders lively discussion. That’s where The Interval comes in: Rose described it as inspired by “the cafes and salons of the enlightenment.” That is, a place for discussion and thought.
It also enables The Long Now Foundation to host much smaller events, even spontaneously, luring in those previously on-the-fence about long-term thought with cocktails and coffee. The basics of the café include bar service, coffee from Sightglass, tea from Samovar, some cute ceramics from Atelier Dion out of West Oakland, and an evening cocktail program that focuses on aged spirits.
Josh Magnani, previously co-owner and founder of Contraband Coffee, is the current coffee guru at The Interval. I got a chance to talk to him about the coffee program over the limestone bar, quarried from the future site of the 10,000 Year Clock, a project they’re building on a monumental scale in West Texas, and of which there’s a model in the cafe. It’s meant to make us think about the civilizations that might find that clock while it’s working or when it finally runs down.
I asked Magnani what it meant to him and to The Interval to think long-term about coffee. “I think the beauty of ‘the 10,000 year question’ is simply that you asked it. Our goal is to get people to think in longer time-frames than they are used to, whether that is ten months, ten years or the extreme 10,000 years.”
Many of the projects of The Long Now Foundation seem similarly conceptual: they simply raise questions. Art by Brian Eno, a board member of the foundation, is another intentional conversation piece. The digital work changes every few moments, and thanks to an algorithm it’s almost infinitely improbable that anyone will see the same work twice—it might take millions of years for the images to repeat.
Another smaller project is the Founder’s Bottles: for a generous donation you can secure a bottle of immaculate gin or whisky that will hang from the ceiling and wait for you to stop by. The spirits are distilled by St. George Spirits in Alameda exclusively for The Interval. Magnani let me taste the gin, which is flavored with juniper berries picked from the base of bristlecone pines on land that the Foundation owns in Nevada. How does this have anything to do with long-term thinking, you ask? Bristlecone pines are the oldest living individual organisms in the world; the oldest examples are nearly 5,000 years old.
“Predicting what coffee, or anything at all, will be like in 10,000 years is a fun and futile exercise in guessing,” said Magnani. “10,000 years ago, for example, China didn’t have rice and Europe was still 5,000 years away from sowing grain. Wooly mammoths were still running around. Could anyone then have predicted ‘third wave’ coffee?”
When I stopped in, the chalkboard was still covered with speculation on the future of the internet, from a discussion that included a member of the NSA. But it’s not just the talks that are reminding visitors to think long term.
“As long as people are having the conversation we have done our part,” said Magnani. “One of the sayings people float around here a lot is ‘are we being good ancestors?’ I had never thought of that before, and I think if more people asked that question coffee, and many others aspects of our civilization, it will have a better chance of being around that long.”