Acoustic Java has settled comfortably into its new space at 204 South Main Street, and the cafe attracts a steady stream of customers. In one corner, shelves are packed with books, which are all for sale. Owner David Fullerton is a longtime coffee aficionado and roaster, and the baristas sling high-quality coffees, teas, and cappuccinos. The store’s dairy products are sourced from Wright’s Farm in North Smithfield; breads are baked at nearby Seven Stars Bakery. Not bad for a storefront that only opened in late September.
At Acoustic Java, the new “microcinema” on the East Side, private viewing is a brand-new concept. All day, movies play on the screen. Visitors can tune in or tune out as they wish. Without the app and earphones, the screening room is just a big, quiet auditorium decked with vintage movie posters.
“In what other ways do people engage with film?” posits owner Fullerton. “That was the question I put to myself. It’s such a waste of space to have [the cinema] closed during the day. The idea was, hey, what if we could offer this as the kind of environment where you can come and do your work and engage with film? And that’s what you can do here.”
But Acoustic Java has a lot to live up to. For 42 years, the space was occupied by The Cable Car, the iconic one-screen theater. Generations of moviegoers flowed through that venue; thousands of reels made their Rhode Island premiere in this tiny Providence spot, including art films, foreign films, and obscure cult classics. When the new cafe opened its doors, many assumed that the original Cable Car was just reopening; the new name has taken some adjustment. Yet, Acoustic Java isn’t just a new tenant in an old building; David has inherited decades of fans and expectations. He’s trying a similar project in a new way. And as every movie buff knows, it’s hard to make a satisfying sequel.
When the Cable Car closed in May 2018, the news sent shockwaves through the city. Few people saw it coming. Indeed, this very magazine had just published a long story about independent cinema in Providence, spotlighting the Cable Car and its beloved owners Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian, who had taken over the operation in 2008.
Days after that issue hit the stands, a Facebook post announced Cable Car’s impending closure. The owners had negotiated for a full year with the Rhode Island School of Design, which technically owned the building. No agreement had been reached, and it seemed best to pull up stakes.
This left RISD with a quandary: How do you fill a commercial space like the former Cable Car? South Main Street is a splendid location, on a walkable corridor with plenty of evening parking. The place was already outfitted as a movie theater, and the school’s goal was to keep it that way. But who was capable of making a one-screen art-house into a profitable, 21st century business? Who was willing to haggle with distributors, movie buffs, and local cultural institutions? If the rent was too high for the Cable Car owners, why should a new entrepreneur feel any different? And how do you rebrand a place that had already stoked so many memories?
Then, out of nowhere, David Fullerton appeared.
David is a serious, soft-spoken man with a passing resemblance to Christian Slater. Born in New Jersey, David grew up in Colorado, lived in California, and finished school in Providence. He speaks in slow and deliberate sentences, and his experience as a teacher is of little surprise. David holds a PhD from Brown, where he specialized in Abolitionist literature. He seems capable of any number of careers, but in 2007, David took over Acoustic Java in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Those origins were humble: The cafe had a one-pound roaster. He soon accrued a 12-kilo roaster, which grew his output by 25 times. But the new machinery was too unwieldy for the original space, so David moved his company to Whittall Mills, a historic brick factory building. For seven years, David commuted back and forth from Providence, until his family finally moved to Worcester. Today, Acoustic Java consists of three locations: one cafe and eatery, one roastery and tasting room, and one new cafe and microcinema in Providence.
David knows our city well, including the former Cable Car. He remembers visiting the theater with his future wife to see the seminal Inuit film The Fast Runner. The Cable Car’s abrupt end stunned David as much as anyone else.
“At the time, I couldn’t imagine the city without it,” he recalls. “So when I saw it had gone out of business, I could totally relate to all the emotions – the disbelief and sadness – and I thought to myself, ‘How could that happen?’”
Opening a new Acoustic Java location was an ambitious idea, especially for a father of four children. But it also made sense: In recent years, the Massachusetts locations had collaborated with Cinema Worcester to present intermittent film nights. David is no stranger to streaming movies, but he found inspiration in the social rituals of movie theaters.
“I thought it was such a great overlapping of experiences,” he says. “There’s the movie, the conversation that goes on around the movie, dinner and movie, coffee and movie. When I saw this opportunity, to come [to Providence] and engage people with the coffee, it just seemed like there could be a good community match – with the coffee, and the movies, and the aesthetic sensibility.”
During the afternoons and evenings, Acoustic Java will screen regular features, and a full schedule can be found on the Acoustic Java website. The selections are very much in keeping with the Cable Car’s independent spirit; this month, you can catch the 1963 Ingmar Bergman drama Winter Light, as well as the Short Short Story Film Festival, which showcases films under six minutes long. The festival, presented by local MergingArts Productions, is now in its 13th year. As time goes by, David hopes to collaborate with many other art institutions and festival organizers, the same way he’s worked with Cinema Worcester.
In many ways, David has kept the Cable Car skeleton intact. The lobby maintains its peculiar, maze-like layout. Popcorn is still available, for the unheard-of price of $3 per bag, and refills are unlimited. David is still learning the ins and outs of distribution and projection, but as an educator he loves the idea of enriching conversations through cinematic art.
Indeed, if you’re observant, you may spot the quote painted on the wall above the cafe counter. The dense excerpt comes from Walter Benjamin, a German intellectual from the early 20th century: “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise.”
Put simply: Modern life is busy, and our brains are changing in order to keep up, but movies are a great way to help us figure things out.
“It’s a historic thing that’s happening,” says David, in his customary philosophic tone. “There are some things that are going to be gone and you can’t recover them, and that’s a sad thing. But excellent movies are still being made. And they’re super interesting, and they’re thought-provoking and world-changing. That’s one of the reasons we’re calling this a microcinema – for the intimacy, a space where you can talk.”