Mary Burns – Midtowner, Dreamer, Owner of Java Cabana


Mary Ann “Penny” Burns | June 18, 1970 – October 4, 2019

By Mark Fleischer

Mary Burns seemed like someone still trying to figure it all out. She was the first to defend the underdog, and first in line to cheer for the dreamer – perhaps because she was both a dreamer and an underdog herself.

Mary Burns, owner of Java Cabana Coffeehouse in Cooper-Young, passed away Friday October 4 after a four-year bout with lung cancer.

In characteristic fashion, Mary told hardly anyone about her illness. She chose instead to fight it privately, with positive spiritual energy.

Mary Burns
Mary Burns, from her Instagram @javacabanacafe

Mary had many passions – teaching, poetry and sharing her love of language – but her greatest passion was her coffeehouse. It is the very epitome of Midtown: eclectic, colorful, diverse, and above all, welcoming. And Mary, she was the quintessential Midtowner – she loved her Cooper-Young neighborhood. “I feel grateful to be a part of Cooper-Young,” she said in a May essay. She welcomed all, rich and poor, the sick and the healthy, smiles and frowns.

“In 1998, young and enthusiastic, I bought Java Cabana from Tommy Foster after working behind the counter several years earlier and hosting and running open mic night. Tommy had established a quirky foundation from the beginning with 1950s dinette tables, the First Church of Elvis Impersonator Shrine, and a Viva Wedding Chapel in the back, where he married hundreds of couples. He put Cooper-Young on the map, as far as I and many of his fans are concerned.”

~Mary Burns, for StoryBoard in May 2019

With her spiritual flare, Mary made the coffeehouse all hers. She painted the cafe blue, brought back a shrine to original owner Tommy Foster (who passed away in June of 2018), had it blessed by Tibetan monks, and brought in flooring salvaged from (now-gone Summer Avenue landmark) Imperial Bowling lanes.

She called it her place to dream.

It was also her “happy accident.” She seemed almost the reluctant shop owner, on the search for other inspirations, aspirations and other ways to express herself. “Perhaps I am right where I am supposed to be,” she said on a Facebook post in 2011. “In my own routine, waiting to see where my attention is drawn next.”

That attention was on full display when I met her in the fall of 2017. She was serving coffee during River Arts Fest., at her 409 South Main Market coffee counter (during what now feels like a too-much-to-handle experimental satellite location that she ended this year) and I was seeking a little warm refuge from the cold outside. Inevitably the conversation turned to the not-yet in print StoryBoard, and immediately Mary was interested.

“I want to be a part of that!” she exclaimed.

And so, she was. Since our inaugural issue we published her poems “Spare Change” and “Past Life,” as well as her wonderful May essay on her dream of owning a coffeeshop, and the magic of Java Cabana. She was one of StoryBoard’s – and my – biggest cheerleaders. She reserved a special spot in the shop for StoryBoard, just as she reserved special spots for everyone who walked in. “People often tell me it feels like home or being in someone’s house,” she said. “It is a magical place. . . where people come in from the outside world for a reprieve, and it’s also a place where I still like to dream.”

Dreams. They don’t happen without people like Mary Burns. And though she may have still been on that search of her own – “waiting to see where my attention is drawn next” – hers is that special soul that inspired others to follow theirs, and will continue with her passing.

“To meet her was a blessing,” reads her obituary. “To know her was a gift.”

Lover of Cooper-Young, lover of vintage clothing, a poet, a dreamer, and an underdog – we will miss you Mary Burns. Rest in your dreams. <>

(Her May essay My Place to Dream is here.)

Funeral Services are being held at 2:00 PM, Tuesday, October 8, 2019, at Forest Hill Funeral Home East, 2440 Whitten Road, Memphis, Tenn. A celebration of her life will be held afterward at her coffeehouse, Java Cabana, at 2170 Young Avenue.

Word from Mary’s family is that they intend to keep Mary’s coffeehouse, her place to dream, open for business.

Her full obituary can be found here with this link on the Forest Hill Funeral Home & Memorial Park East website.

Her place to dream. Clockwise from top-left: Mary Burns with her faithful (Instagram @javacabanacafe); Mary with copies of StoryBoard and ‘Scrumbles’ creator Eva Guggenheim (Instagram); Follow your Dreams (photo by Kelly King Howe)

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