Artist and small business owner Tommy Foster, a pivotal player in the renaissance of Cooper-Young, died on June 2 after a long battle with cancer. He was 64.
Raised in Whitehaven, Foster was a self-taught folk artist who throughout his life was drawn to themes of pop culture kitsch and especially music and music makers. For a time, he ran the music venue the Pyramid Club downtown. But in 1992 he came to Cooper-Young to open a business that would combine all his interests and transform the neighborhood and arguably the city.
Cooper-Young had just started its renaissance a year before with the opening of Café Ole. The coffee scene nationally was just beginning to change as well: Starbucks was moving into California, but already independent operators around the country were opening new kinds of coffeeshops, more akin to the beatnik hangouts of the 50s and 60s, but with a newfound focus on premium coffee.
There had been coffeehouses in Memphis before Foster opened Java Cabana in 1992 but none with the style that the he brought to the enterprise. Besides coffee lovers, Java Cabana became home to a subset of the local counterculture drawn to the live music, art shows, and literary events that were also on the menu. In a backroom Foster built the Viva Memphis Wedding Chapel with original Elvis-themed artwork where the non-denominational minister performed weddings. And in the front display window he constructed a coin-operated moving Elvis shrine that would later be replicated in House of Blues restaurants around the world.
Foster sold Java Cabana in 1998 to current owner Mary Burns and embarked on many more travels and ventures. Meanwhile the neighborhood he helped resuscitate continues to grow bigger sometimes beyond the recognition of those who remember it when Java Cabana opened. But one thing that remains the same is the spirit — independent, colorful, fun-loving, music-obsessed — that Foster first brought to it.
A memorial is being planned for later this summer. — Mark Jordan