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T he four-letter words New Haven likes to say say a lot about New Haven. 

“Cafe” is as common as you’d imagine in a small city with more than 500 places to eat. “Thai” is, too, in a city where a single block has four Thai spots. Common too is “park,” but for the opposite reason: open street spots can be quite rare, justifying downtown parking garages with bold “park” signs.

On the same block as those Thai places is a cafe whose patrons say one of New Haven’s most important four-letter words again and again: “book.” Book Trader Cafe’s the cafe, selling sandwiches, drinks and desserts in addition to secondhand page-turners. The place also accommodates a two-by-four-letter notion it’s less known for: used DVDs. On dry-weather days, hundreds of them are wheeled outside on metal racks, each disc costing less than four bucks: “DVDs $2.98-$3.98,” shelf stickers say.

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Almost as easy to find as a “book” at Book Trader is a “Yale” in New Haven. One of my favorites is the one outside Yale Repertory Theatre. Etched into a curved, high-gloss, bright-red setting—nowhere near Yale Blue—the font of the white text still hews closely to Yale’s signature serif, signaling a nod to a larger context but also a willingness to depart.

Acknowledgements of canon and creative departures also mark the constantly swirling music scene in New Haven, where “band” is often a headlining word in conversations about what to do on a given night. Sometimes “band” even makes it onto the chalkboard at Stella Blues or the window posters at Toad’s Place or the marquee at College Street Music Hall, as it did for last Friday’s sold-out Tedeschi Trucks Band show.

Encompassing almost equally active theater and painting and many other scenes, “arts” is constantly said and seen in New Haven. Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School and Educational Center for the Arts are New Haven’s most centrally located high schools; across Audubon Street from ECA, the all-ages, a la carte Creative Arts Workshop and the headquarters of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven help anchor what’s officially dubbed the city’s Audubon Arts District.

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New Haven’s four-letter words sometimes speak to its history, not its art, and sometimes they speak in riddles. It’s natural, for example, to think that the “Taft” in the Taft Apartments building, formerly the wingdinging Hotel Taft opened in 1912, is named for William Howard Taft, who was president of the United States, chief justice of the Supreme Court and a resident of the Hotel Taft for many years between. In fact, “Taft” is a tribute to William’s younger brother Horace, who was headmaster of the Taft School in Watertown and one of the hotel’s chief investors.

A Republican liberals today could actually stomach, William Howard Taft would probably have to switch affiliations just to win a local campaign today, where Democratic primaries are more competitive than general elections. Though a Board of Alders meeting at City Hall may be the densest cluster of lefts in New Haven, the city’s densest cluster of “left”s is almost certainly the 50-yard stretch of North Frontage Street just before College, where four separate “left lane must turn left” signs, along with other “left”s on other signs, embody a word formed from two other four-letter words: “over,” and “kill.”

Overkill—generally a bad thing. A good thing? “Good,” as in Good Nature Market. Open 24 hours a day, the Whitney Avenue location offers the city’s only reliable ’round-the-clock public access to an essential four-letter utility: Wi-Fi. If your internet goes down, and all the coffee shops are closed, and you’re on deadline, Good Nature on Whitney might be your lifeline.

And if you should mutter a bunch of four-letter words while seeking out that late-night lifeline, the good-natured folks at Good Nature will probably understand.

Photo Key

1. Istanbul Cafe.
2. Near North Frontage Street and College.
3. Taft Apartments.
4. College Street Music Hall.
5. Aladdin Parking.
6. Crown Street Garage.
7. Creative Arts Workshop.
8. Good Nature Market on Whitney Avenue.
9. Near North Frontage Street and College.
10. Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School.
11. Yale Repertory Theatre.
12. Thai Taste.
13. Book Trader Cafe.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Turning down a dream editing job right out of college, Dan instead went into marketing and media sales to better cover the rent. Stints at Spin Magazine and Yahoo! followed. But he kept scratching that writing-and-editing itch—first on the side, then at a couple of startups. Dan is now scratching it as Daily Nutmeg's editor.

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