Inside the shell of an old San Jose liquor store, Spec emerges from her back-room haunt, ready to explore. The black-and-grey-striped Maine Coon mix nervously eyes the clowder of new housemates, skulking a little closer each time before losing her nerve and scuttling back to a dark little corner.
“She’s still insecure,” says Marilyn Krieger, a cat behaviorist and author known as “The Cat Coach.” Krieger crouches to show how to lure a skittish kitty. Hunker down to “cat level,” she says, extend a finger and let the kitty creep up to impart some of its pheromones.
“That’s her way of saying, ‘Nice to meet you,’” she explains, “while marking you at the same time.”
However, Spec is in no mood to introduce herself, even to a certified cat coach.
“She’ll work her way out eventually,” Krieger offers reassuringly. “But you have to give her that freedom.”
Luckily for Spec and her 10 other cohabitants, the entire space was arranged with feline Feng Shui in mind, designed to ease the transition from shelter life at her own pace. Carpeted towers, cubbyholes, scratch posts, lots of vertical space to retreat to, kitty grass for digestion and plenty of catnip-spiked toys. Come Thursday, the sunny corner-store will open to the public as The Dancing Cat, San Jose’s first-ever cat café.
“Cats are so unique,” says Ann Chasson, who pulled the pop-up project together with her friend Mary Rubin to promote adoptions for local shelters. “This gives them a space for their personalities to emerge and a chance to bond with people in an environment that feels a lot like a home.”
Cat cafes originated in Taiwan and Japan as place for people who can’t own pets—for lack of space or lack of time—to commune with cats. Last year, the concept arrived stateside.
The Cat Town Café in Oakland, which opened last fall as an offshoot of an existing adoption agency, bills itself as the first permanent cat café in the United States. Proprietors say they can barely keep up with demand—a welcome problem, given the millions of strays that populate the Bay Area and overwhelm shelters. Japanese teahouse-inspired KitTea opened in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley last month with help from angel investors, a Petco grant and proceeds from a crowdfunding campaign.
Chasson and Rubin began mulling the idea of opening something similar in Silicon Valley last year, after striking up a friendship over a shared interest in fostering kittens for local shelters.
“At first I thought this would just be a fun thing to do,” says Chasson, who runs a biotech firm by day. “Then I realized that this could also become an important service to the community.”
Rather than soliciting donations, the pair pooled their own money for a month-long pilot to test whether the project could turn into something more permanent. They found a vacant liquor store on the corner of East Julian and North 15th streets via Craigslist and set to work decorating the space like a quaint little coffeehouse. Neighbors are thrilled to be rid of the liquor store, with its late hours and raucous if not sozzled patrons, and they’ve welcomed the entrepreneurial cat ladies.
“One of the neighbors from across the street—when I told him about our plans—asked me, ‘Can I give you a hug right now?’” Chasson says with a laugh. “Literally, we were welcomed with open arms.”
As a project manager for the city of San Jose’s public art program, Rubin also views The Dancing Cat as a way to activate downtown by way of tactical urbanism, working with local artists to promote a social cause.
Husband-and-wife artists Roan Victor and Sean Boyles, who own The Arsenal art supply store on The Alameda, were commissioned to paint a series of expansive panels with paint-and-ink renderings of their own cats for the café. From left to right, the banners depict Stretch, Mean Gene, Leeloo and Homes, all on their hind legs as though batting at cat toys.
“The city is really looking at how to create responsible development,” says Rubin, who oversaw Mineta San Jose International Airport’s widely acclaimed art installations. “This is an opportunity for community development, in that sense. And to get cats adopted.”
If the breakneck adoption rates at the Bay Area’s two other cat cafes are any indication, Rubin and Chasson will have to hustle to re-up on shelter cats. Carin Schroff, adoption coordinator for Town Cats, a no-kill shelter, hopes the low-key environment of a café will help some of the older, harder-to-adopt rescues finally find a human.
“Some of these cats get overlooked at a shelter,” Schroff says. Like Sophie, an 11-year-old orange-and-white Scottish Fold whose shyness has kept her a ward of the shelter for the better part of a decade. “This could give them a chance to shine.”
In addition to promoting adoptions, cat cafes seem to have finally found a way to create a physical gathering place for cat enthusiasts. Dog lovers have long had their dog parks, doggy Halloween parades and costume contests. But cats tend toward the solitary and independent, which makes it difficult to have anything like a feline-friendly counterpart to the wildly popular Corgi meet-ups at Shoreline Dog Park.
“You can’t just put your cat on a leash,” Rubin says.
The absence of a public space for cats and their adoring humans could explain why they exploded into a billion-and-something memes on the Internet. An entire global community formed around cats online, celebrating their mystery and weirdness with fan art, videos and feline celebrities—including South Bay local Hamilton the Hipster Cat.
The Dancing Cat and venues like it manage to balance feline whims with human propensity to spend time in the company of cats. While cat comfort takes precedence, with plenty of cubbies and ledges for them to hide, the people visiting will have a welcoming milieu of their own to set up with a laptop and a cup of coffee for an hour or so.
“Community is born around so many different things, whether it’s children, art, business or Burning Man,” Rubin says. “Why not for cats?”
Days before the grand opening, Rubin and Chasson swing by the spot to see how the first batch of 11 rescues have settled in. Calico sisters Spaghetti and O’s have found separate perches, though they come as a package. Tempe, an orange creamsicle tabby, has found a perch close to the ceiling. A few of his more timorous peers peek out from under the sofa, including a cynical-looking sooty snow longhair named Clive. Harlequin, purring like a barrel of bees, acts like a one-kitty welcoming committee, rubbing up on the fire inspector’s navy blue pant leg.
“My wife’s allergic to cats,” says the fire inspector, who can’t stop grinning during his final look-over of the building.
“Well, you should come back when we’re open,” Rubin offers. “You can’t have a cat at home, but you can still hang out with them.”
The Dancing Cat, 702. E. Julian St., San Jose. Grand opening at noon Thursday. Regular hours: noon to 6pm Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 9pm Friday and Saturday, noon to 6pm Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday. www.thedancingcat.org. Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for children 10 and under. Book in advance to reserve a spot.