Behind Bars: Mike Heslop at Kafe Kerouac

Erica Thompson
Mike Heslop

American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac was a significant figure in the 1950s literary movement commonly known as the "Beat Generation." He also inspired the name of a quirky Columbus bar and coffee shop just a short walk from Ohio State University: Kafe Kerouac.

Owner Mike Heslop feels Kerouac embodies the "literature and the arts" theme of the establishment.

"Plus the alliteration … sounds better than like a 'Café Hemingway,'" he said.

Kerouac's imprint is all over the space, from his giant portrait next to the bar to the pages of his novel, "On the Road," which are pasted along the wall. Other authors are given a chance to shine on the menu.

"We name a lot of our mixed drinks after writers," Heslop said. Current beverages include the Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens.

"I think people really get a kick out of ordering an author," Heslop said. "They go, 'Should I order my favorite author [or] should I order the flavors that actually sound like I'd like [them]?'"

At the same time, patrons can read their favorite authors, as Kafe Kerouac includes a vast library of used books - along with comic books and vinyl - available for purchase.

Prior to opening the place in May 2004, Heslop earned an English degree from Ohio State and tried to shop two of his own novels - "Urban Survival," about "love and art," and "The Core," which follows a group of friends from high school to adulthood. Although he wasn't able to get the books published, he continues to write everything from TV scripts to comedy, which is another one of his many interests.

Heslop also writes music. After getting his start on bass guitar in eighth grade jazz band, he went on to play in a number of Columbus bands, including the Shazzbots, which performs music for children. Additionally, his song "Dear, Columbus" was featured on an album commemorating the 200th anniversary of the city.

Heslop is able to combine all of his talents at Kafe Kerouac, especially during the monthly Kafe Kerouac Show.

"I play music, myself, on stage, and then I have a guest musician come up," he said. Then, he and a guest comedian perform standup routines. Finally, he plays a game with the audience.

Beyond that show, Heslop features local talent by holding events like poetry open mic nights and songwriter workshops.

He also has a special bond with his customers. "I've developed relationships with the people in the neighborhood where I've got the same people who have been coming here for 12 years," he said. "I've seen people meet [and] get married. I've had engagements here before."

When prompted for his greatest day at Kafe Kerouac, Heslop thinks of all the memorable moments over the years, but decides that nothing compares to the simple act of making drinks and mingling.

"Most Fridays are great days," he said.