A writer huddled in a quiet corner toiling away on her novel, powered by endless cups of coffee. A newly elected mayor celebrating his victory. A group of uniformed middle schoolers munching on French fries and using writing prompts to scribble poetry on brown-paper tablecloths. Hip-hop artists, poets, and singers pouring out their hearts and souls to an appreciative crowd during open mic nights. Social justice activists, fueled by incredible ideas, milk shakes, and fried plantains, working to change their neighborhood, city, and world for the better.
That’s the incredible scene at El Taller, a bookstore, café, and meeting place in downtown Lawrence that has become—in the five years since it opened in 2012—the city’s beating creative heart.
“Don’t all communities deserve a café?” asks Mary O’Brien Guerrero of Lawrence, a former teacher who owns and runs El Taller Café & Bookstore with her family, which also owns the Mexican restaurant Café Azteca.
Owner of El Taller Mary O’Brien Guerrero
Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, and Simone de Beauvoir all did some of their most groundbreaking thinking and creating in cafés and coffee shops. Now the same is true for those who make El Taller—which means “the workshop” in Spanish—their gathering place in the city.
Inside, there’s a long counter where patrons can watch cooks in the open kitchen. A huge bookcase lines the opposite wall. Local art hangs on the walls. A small stage with a microphone is tucked into the back corner.
Mary says she’s often asked how she and her team created such a place.
“The answer is, I didn’t,” she says, adding that when there’s no venue for artistic expression somewhere, it’s easy to assume that the art also doesn’t exist.
“They don’t realize the talent that’s here,” she says. “A lot of what’s going on here is just us providing the venue.”
For instance, every third Thursday, El Taller hosts open mic nights, often emceed by 24-year-old writer Nathan Baez of Lawrence, who uses El Taller as a place to connect. And, he adds, it was especially needed in Lawrence.
Above all, everyone associated with El Taller says it is welcoming to all and the reasons behind that welcoming atmosphere are as multifaceted as they are organic. First, El Taller is family-run. Mary works alongside her husband, chef Antonio Guerrero; her sons, Eric and Patrick, and their girlfriends, chef Taysha Diaz and illustrator Kate Delaney; and her daughter, Katerina.
El Taller also has deep ties to the community, working on educational and community programs with partners like the Lawrence Public Library and the Addison Gallery.
But mostly, the welcoming and engaging spirit comes from El Taller’s insistence that everyone, regardless of their social or financial status, is valued as a human being.
“If they walk in that door, they’re welcome, and they have a space there,” Eric Guerrero says.
Mary says people often remark that visiting El Taller is “like being in New York City.”
“No,” she tells them. “It’s like being in Lawrence.”