Terri Wiley, who runs the cafe with spouse Terrance Wiley, behind the counter at American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

What does it mean to be an American?

It’s the question at the heart of a tranquil Kensington cafe and bookstore recently launched by educators and married couple Terrance and Terri Wiley.

American Grammar opened its doors on the corner of Front and Diamond late June, intentionally quietly to allow the duo to ease into a business new to them both. On the menu, there’s drip coffee and cold brew from Elixir, espresso from Brooklyn-based roaster Parlor, and several options to steep from Smith Tea and Leaves and Flowers.

There are also upwards of 500 books lining the sleekly upcycled shelves and countertops, with a common theme running throughout. The focus is on American authors and an emphasis on social and environmental justice, Terrance, 44, told Billy Penn, with titles selected to follow a guiding question:

“What constitutes America, what is an American, and what do you have to know to understand what an American is?”

The idea for American Grammar has been brewing since the duo’s undergrad days at the University of Texas El Paso, Terrance’s hometown and where Terri relocated from Kansas.

“I was always struck by how many resources and how much intellectual, creative energy is concentrated on a college campus,” Terrance said, “And thinking about ways to extend the spirit of that into other spheres.”

They initially considered a bookstore with after-school literacy and mentorship programs. Then they had a key realization — the most interesting events and conversations they participated in were happening in cafes. 

“A coffee shop seemed like an appropriate space to explore the creative, intellectual side,” Terrance said. 

Books and art fill the walls of American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

The idea stayed with the Wileys through their move to Philadelphia for grad school — Terrance is now an assistant professor of Africana and religious studies at Haverford while Terri teaches at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown. 

Getting it off the ground was anything but easy. Plans to open in a 3,800-sq.-ft. space in Allegheny West in 2021 fell through after a spring rainstorm revealed severe leakage issues — right after they had moved everything in. 

“It took us a little while to regroup,” Terrance said. He credited the eventual launch in a new space to the “magical, almost enchanting” quality of random encounters and subsequent collaborations the duo hopes will be a hallmark of American Grammar.

Built with found objects and serendipitous partnerships

The cafe’s pastries come courtesy of Honeyflour Bakeshop, 17 months after Terrance struck up a friendship with owner Jasmine McClain while she was still a shift manager at a coffee shop near Haverford. 

Similarly, a large collage inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott and the Seneca Falls Convention was commissioned from artist Sarah Jacoby, a neighborhood resident Terrance also met through spontaneous conversation. 

Books are visible immediately after stepping into the space, with a wide range of titles on display. 

American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

There’s David Treuer’s “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America 1890 to the Present” and Lillian Faderman’s “Woman: The American History of an Idea.”

On the same shelf: “Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created” by Santi Elijah Holley, an anthology of feminist essays, a collection of Quentin Tarantino’s film reviews, and “Our America: A Photographic History.” by Ken Burns.

Elsewhere, Rick Rubin’s “The Creative Act” shares tablespace with Hilton Als’s “White Girls” and Michael Desmond’s “Poverty, By America.”

On tables and stands throughout the space are several issues of magazines such as New Philosopher, Baffler, and BlackStar festival’s Seen.

American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

The publications are all new editions, but much in the space has been repurposed from found objects. 

Salvage-yard slabs of Wells Fargo marble are used for the countertops, while decorative wall planks and shelves come from a Poconos cabin floor. On some of the seating is a speckled spongy padding made from melted laundry detergent bottle caps.

The furnishings include couches, chairs, and stools upholstered by Terri, tables of various sizes, and display cases for the eventual works by local artists the couple hopes to exhibit.

It was all sketched up by Terrance, run through TinkerCad by Terri, and handed over to a cast of local makers and builders. Thick patterned rugs, a hanging mobile, and clusters of ceramic works tie the 1,600 sq.ft. space together.

“He’s a man of ideas,” Terri said of her partner’s design efforts. “It’s been really exciting to see all the ways that he’s creative.”

The result is an earth-toned embodiment of an unexpectedly “serene moment,” in Terrance’s words, with the rumbling from the El directly outside diluted by a soft soundtrack of R&B. 

Readings, music, poetry, art

American Grammar’s tables and seating for 55 are arranged to be conducive to group readings, suggestive of an earlier name considered by the Wileys: Junto, after Benjamin Franklin’s political and philosophical discussion group.

It was only when sharing American Grammar as a potential name with a colleague that Terrance realized its connection to a seminal essay of African-American literary analysis and criticism, Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.”

“I don’t know if it was the unconscious working,” Terrance laughed. “But [the name] has resonance with this tradition, and it helped provide focus.”

A collage by artist Sarah Jacoby at American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Several events are in the works, including music and poetry performances. A writing workshop will also be held on the first Wednesday of every month. Artist Jacoby will host toddler Saturday storytimes. A reading group will launch in October, kicking off with “All This Could Be Different” with author Sarah Thankam Mathews. 

An art exhibition by a group of architects from DesignPhiladelphia who are people of color is slated for an early October opening. Currently on display are works by artists both local and from elsewhere in the US, like Terrance’s fellow El Pasoan, ceramics sculptor George Rodriguez.

The majority of the pieces are for sale but for the Wileys, that’s almost besides the point.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be a serious art gallery,” Terrance said. “But people comment on it constantly, and even just a small child coming in, you don’t know how they’ll be shaped by that exposure.”

American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Book sales have been promisingly consistent, Terrance said, with an average of three sold each day this past month.

With the start of the academic year, the couple is considering hiring staff to help run the cafe. They may also expand hours of operation in an effort to “facilitate as many inspiring encounters as possible.”

More immediately, they continue to work on creating a “respite,” Terrance said, so “people can feel just a little bit more connected, be a little warmer, and make the world a little more inhabitable.”

2046 N. Front St. | 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday | $3-$6

The exterior of American Grammar at 2046 N. Front St. in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
Co-owner Terri Wiley at American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
Ceramic at American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
Artwork at American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
Books line the walls at American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
American Grammar in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.