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U.S. Veteran Katie Bishop's One-of-a-Kind Gowanus Cafe Welcomes the Quirky, the Queer and the Downright 'Irregular'

Principles Coffee House is a place where veterans, queer folks and “all other people who are not expressly welcome in regular society” can come.
Katie Bishop. Photo: Sam Small for the BK Reader.

Katie Bishop is not just the owner of Principles Coffee House in Gowanus: She is the curator of an unconventional, garage-turned “rabble-rousing gathering space masquerading as a cafe.” 

Opening a coffee shop, however, wasn’t initially in Bishop's plan. She thought she would become a musician.

Born in Prescott, Arizona, Bishop joined the Marines right out of high school, playing bassoon for the United States Marine Corps Band: “I wasn’t gung ho about being in the military. I just wanted a job as a professional musician,” Bishop said.

“I was a slacker in high school and wasn’t prepared for college and wanted to get the hell out of Prescott and be a musician. And, [it was] the only job in the country where a musician can get paid by a state-funded music program.”

She was stationed in Georgia where she performed every evening for three years for the U.S. government. However, she soon found the intensive environment paired with the rigid creative direction constraining: It left her feeling disenfranchised. 

“I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t because I was contractually obliged to stay,” Bishop said.

The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis, which is Latin for 'always faithful.' For a musician just looking for somewhere to get paid to play music, this nationalist motto was hard to digest in earnest while reckoning with the complicated past of the U.S. army. 

“There is something special in that sentiment, the underlying ethos of believing in your corps,” Bishop said.

“But I think many people are unquestioning people. And I think that’s why I didn’t do well: I was incredibly questioning of it.”

After leaving the service, Bishop busied herself by continuing her schooling, eventually completing her undergraduate degree and then a master's degree in music composition at Queens College.

Now, years out of the service and with two degrees under her belt, Bishop realized she hit the end of her academic road and needed to go back to the drawing board. She began looking for a community but discovered she was already a part of one: She was a veteran. 

“I think there is something intimately connected with my identity as a veteran where I see the potential and possibility of what America could be, while also dealing with and reconciling how f--ed up it is,” Bishop said.

"But also there is nuance to it. Being a veteran is a testament to some part of being beholden to American idealism, but I think we can recycle or repurpose what all of this is and means.” 

As a “perennial student of life,” Bishop's barista experience found her brewing coffee in her apartment and soon she began imagining a space unlike any of the cafes where she'd previously worked.

A space that she could bend and form to her own will; a community where veterans, queer folks and “all other people who are not expressly welcome in regular society” can come and use.  

The menu at Principles. Photo: Sam Small for the BK Reader.
The menu at Principles. Photo: Sam Small for the BK Reader.

So she opened Principles Cafe. She said it's much more than just a coffee shop: It’s a place that welcomes the free exchange of ideas.

Often, Principles moonlights as a sober meeting space, a clubhouse for bikers (in the corner there is a bike tool library for all repair needs) and occasionally a learning environment where free bike classes are taught. 

Although Principles only opened just a few months ago, a steady rush finds Bishop meticulously pouring pay-what-you-want drinks labeled as “milky,” “fancy-milky,” and “fancy not-milky,” right up until closing time.

The quippy menu, the throng of LGBTQ+ flags lined along the wall and the platoon of regulars greeted with a “Hey, you!” captures the essence of Principles: A casual, safe space fit for any, every and all kinds of people.