Urban Geographer
Sylvia Beach Hotel

Darcy Cosper

"Under No Management," announced a sign in the front window of Portland, Oregon 's Rimsky-Korsakoffee House—that is, until it was stolen. The cafe's owner, Gudrun Cable, likes to tell this story to illustrate her lack of business sense, but Goody (as she is called) clearly knows what she's doing; although she never advertises, the cafe is always packed, and her 20-room seaside inn, the Sylvia Beach Hotel, is often booked up to a year and a half in advance.

The Rimksy-Korsakoffee House, named in honor of 19th-century Russian composer Nikolay Share Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, is located on a side street in a largely residential Portland neighborhood. Serving coffee concoctions and outrageous desserts nightly, the cafe was a necessary outgrowth of the frequent music salons that Cable hosted in her home. "I got tired of cleaning up," she said. "This is sort of like having a party every night."

The rambling Victorian residence that houses the cafe has always been a home to music. Its first residents, in 1902, included a classical pianist and a writer for a classical music journal. Music still reigns in the dim, cluttered, comfortable rooms of the cafe that Cable and her staff opened in 1980; visitors are treated to nightly classical piano concerts, and musicians need only sign up to play. "It's not very serious...nothing about this place is very serious," Cable said.

Extreme whimsy does seem to be the house rule. Several of the tables, all of which are named after classical composers and decorated with corresponding biographical ephemera, hold surprises for the uninitiated. A table named for Svoboda, Oregon's composer laureate, slowly raises and lowers, and the low round table named after Erik Satie rotates so slowly that diners, caught up in conversation, will reach for their desserts and end up with a bite of someone else's. Plans are afoot for a new Rachmaninoff table which, at well-spaced intervals, will shake violently for three seconds at a time.


After years of success with the cafe, Cable decided to open the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, a small town on the Oregon coast. She named the hotel after one of the century's greatest patrons of literature, the woman who owned the bookstore Shakespeare and Co. in Paris in the 1920s and '30s.

Opened on March 14, 1987, on what would have been Beach's 100th birthday, the "bed and breakfast for book lovers" is a four-story building built in 1910, originally named The Cliff House, and later The Hotel Gilmore. In its early years it was a fashionable beach resort and the honeymoon capital of Oregon, but during the mid-nineteen-sixties, the hotel, under new management, fell into disrepair, eventually functioning as a de-facto flophouse until Cable purchased it.

The hotel's suites, named after authors ranging from Emily Dickinson to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Alice Walker, were designed by 20 of Cable's friends, who selected their favorite writers and gathered decorations for the rooms as well as reading materials relevant to each author's life and work. There is also a restaurant, Tables Of Content, where diners are served family-style at a large table and play Two Truths and a Lie over dinner. Hot wine is served at ten each night in the large attic library and reading room.

Each room houses a journal, in which guests write about their visit, what brought them to the hotel, or whatever their journey brings to mind. The journals tell the real story of the hotel, and it is this story that Cable considers "magical."Recognizing their appeal, one visitor has encouraged Cable to write a television series based on the hotel and the stories in the journals. Cable is at work on a proposal.


Cable has a number of other projects underway, including a self-published book entitled The Rimsky Chronicles: An Operating Manual—a volume of short stories by the cafe staff about their experiences. It will include, among other things, a chapter on good customer etiquette ("Please don't leave the ceramic fish in Satie's pants"). She's also plotting to open another restaurant, to be used exclusively for celebrations, with rooms based on works of art and passages from books related to food and eating. Like all of Cable's ventures, it's certain to be a moveable feast worth going out of one's way for.    </end>

DARCY COSPER is a freelance writer and researcher. She lives in Manhattan.