“Do you know the story of Thomas Edison?” Buffy asks me.
Buffy Illingworth has a special connection to Thomas Edison. She is one half of the team behind Edison’s Cafe, Bar & Inn in Stratford, Ontario — an enterprise located in the same house where the ingenious inventor once lived.
Edison’s has three components, as the name suggests. The first is a cafe, serving up hot beverages and fresh sandwiches. The second is a bar — perfect for patrons of Stratford’s vibrant theatre scene before or after a show. The third is an inn, providing a unique lodging experience to visitors, based on the inventions of Thomas Edison.
Here’s the story: one summer, a teenage Edison moved to Stratford. He worked for the railway company, and part of his job as a night operator was to send a signal every hour to confirm he was awake.
Inventor that he was, he quickly rigged up a way for the signal to send itself — meanwhile, he could use the time to focus on inventing, or have the liberty to take a nap. For a while, his night shifts went off without a hitch.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. One night, Edison was on duty and almost caused a major train crash by not delivering a message on time. He was taken to court for neglect of duty, but managed to skip town and hop on a train to Sarnia, en route back to Michigan. The city of Stratford still owes him his last $25 paycheck.
Buffy tells these stories from behind the Edison’s cafe counter with humour and levity. “Our signature blend is the Signal 6 — that’s what the signal was called that Thomas Edison had to send from the railway station, every hour on the hour.” It’s too bad Edison didn’t invent a time machine — he could have used a cup of that coffee.
The hot drinks, by the way, are great. I’m not a coffee drinker but I order a chai latte that goes down smoothly — light without compromising flavour. The hot chocolate has a deep sweetness that doesn’t go over the top, like pure cocoa.
Every detail of the cafe is spurred by the theme of inventiveness. A mural of Edison and his inventions draws the eye as soon as you enter. The menu is printed on a giant roll of recycled paper, suspended from the wall by an industrial-looking rack. These playful details lend to an aesthetically-satisfying blend of modern and nostalgic.
While inspired by history, Edison’s itself is brand new. When I ask Buffy how long she and her business partner have been running this incarnation of the cafe — the space has housed two cafes before this one — she cheerfully chirps: “Three days!”
You wouldn’t have guessed it. Ever since I’ve entered, people have been flowing in, and hanging around so comfortably that I assumed they were regulars. It was a while before I found a gap to talk to Buffy in between coffee orders. [Note: this was two weeks ago; they are now approaching the benchmark of one month.]
In the spirit of the inventor, the owners are always looking to innovate. As seasoned world travellers, their hope is to create a unique lodging experience.
“We, too, are travellers. Having stayed in way too many hotels, hostels, motels, Airbnbs and fincas over our lives, we have come to appreciate what makes a stay really special. We believe such stays are the ones that make us reenergized and thrilled to take on the world once again.” — Bruce, co-owner
The inn is set to open in January 2017, and will incorporate three rooms of Edison’s residence: a small, a medium, and a large. Each room will have the theme of one of its namesake’s famed inventions: the lightbulb, the kinetoscope, and the phonograph.
“We wanted to honour that inventiveness and creativity, and create a place where people can just sort of come in, and — well — create.”
The lightbulb room, for example, is bright and illuminated by a large window that faces the river — a “million dollar view,” as Buffy puts it. Thomas Edison probably looked out at that exact view, give or take a few modern developments. Maybe it inspired him. Rather than a literal theme, the room’s design is geared toward facilitating what a light bulb represents: a space of brightness, awareness, and ideation.
If Thomas Edison hadn’t escaped the law and fled Stratford, he may never have gone on to invent all the things he did. We would be living in a world without light bulbs.
Sometimes, in order to create something brilliant, you have to break the rules — not necessarily the law, but your own rules. For change and innovation to happen, something has to disrupt the pattern of what you’re already doing.
For a pair of adventurers who have stayed all around the world, co-owners Bruce and Buffy are taking a leap by creating a place for others to stay, in a building where two other cafes have come and gone. Luckily, it’s also a building that has housed a wellspring of ingenuity and inspiration — and Edison’s honours that legacy.
“One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But… I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.”
— Thomas Edison
Stratford is a short daytrip from Toronto, and it’s a great destination if you love art, food, scenery, history, or all of the above. I could write a whole other article on Stratford itself — and probably will soon — because with every visit, I find something new. If you’re in town, check out Edison’s, and let me know what you think!