For twelve years, Gypsy House Cafe has been known almost as much for its Arabian Nights-style mural, visible from East 13th Avenue, as for its Turkish coffee, Best of Denver award-winning hookah offerings and regular open-mike poetry readings. Its status as a home away from home for many in the Capitol Hill neighborhood — including at-risk teens and ambient music fans, all of whom used the dark basement as a refuge to regroup and recharge — is evident in the collage of snapshots next to the register, depicting First Communions, graduations and other life events of a loyal clientele.
But no more. The coffee shop and eatery will shutter March 14 because the building at 1279 Marion Street, in the heart of Capitol Hill, has been sold and the lease is up.
"We've watched so many people grow up here," says Dena Derani. Along with her twin sister, Doniece Derani, and their mother, Nomie Derani, Dena opened Gypsy House in 2004 as a metaphysical healing center. "Women came in pregnant, and then they brought their kids, who are dating age now. We have felt like a part of the community from day one," she adds.
On Monday, a teary-eyed Jessica Chernila — who began hosting regular poetry nights at Gypsy House soon after it opened with her father, the late poet Lenny Chernila, and will be part of the final Freedom of Speech poets' night this Thursday — sat comforting Doniece, who says she and Dena are still in shock.
"We knew that it was possible, this happening, but it happened so suddenly," Doniece says. "We won't even have time to have a big party or anything."
According to a post on the Pinnacle Real Estate Advisors' website, the building sold on January 19. The Denari family says they found out about the sale soon after that, and were initially told they had to be out by mid-February. They also learned not only that the popular cafe will be turned into a sushi restaurant, but that the new owners plan to paint over the mural, done more than a decade ago by local muralist and tattoo artist Jher Seno. "They said that's going to be the first thing to go," Dena says. (The new owner, CiCi Ye, could not be reached for comment.)
The Derani sisters inherited tarot skills and the art of healing from their paternal grandmother, Hayat, the "bassara," or fortune teller, of Tyre, a Phoenician city that sits along the coast south of Beirut in Lebanon. Originally, their plans for the Gypsy House space involved offering tarot-card readings and reiki — hence the Rastafarian-meets-hippie decor dominated by prayer flags, Buddhist shrines, Hindu statues and other spiritual references haphazardly placed among the soft couches, homey coffee tables and floor-to-ceiling plants.
"We knew that prosperity would happen if we just opened ourselves to the neighborhood," Doneice says. Dena adds that in twelve years, she has never had a bad customer. "Even if they came in uptight, they left happy," she says.
Nomie was the cook right from the start, and was always in the kitchen. "I was here seven days a week for twelve years," she recalls. "They made me take one day off one time, but it upset my stomach too much." She has a realtor exploring options, including a Middle Eastern eatery that would showcase her Lebanese roots.
When she was a child, Nomie's family owned the only coffee shop in Tyre; she moved from Lebanon to the United States in 1974 for an arranged marriage to Jamel Derani, who came to Denver from Lebanon in 1969 to study at the University of Colorado Denver. Together with her husband, who is now deceased, Nomie ran Marsala's Ristorante in Westminster in the late '80s and early '90s.
But while Nomie is looking for a new spot, her twins say they feel too hurt and unsettled to consider reopening Gypsy House anywhere else in Denver.
"We're lost gypsies now," Dena says. "We have nowhere to go."
For now, Gypsy House Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily — for now. Celebrate Gypsy House at the final Freedom of Speech Poetry Night at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 25. For more information, call 303-830-1112.
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