It looks more like heaven than a cafe. Blue skies dotted with soft white clouds cover its arched ceiling. Large murals of woodlands blanket its walls. Life-sized, oak tree sculptures with curiously large holes are placed around the room. Every once in a while, as visitors sit cross-legged on the floor across low, wooden tables and sip on iced mochas with extra chocolate syrup, a cat will poke its head out of one of the holes.
This is Temari no Ouchi, one of Tokyo’s 58 cat cafes. What the hell is a cat cafe, you ask? Think regular coffeeshop, but with a bunch of furry felines, many of which are from stray shelters. These institutions allow patrons to eat, drink, and be merry while waving pieces of string in front of little kittens. In the world’s most populous area, these cafes offer a brief respite from the outside environs; they are as much a shelter for the visitors as they are for the cats. As a region-wide nuclear gamble is waged by two delirious, unstable madmen, places like Temari no Ouchi let Tokyo residents experience something of a rarity: peace and quiet.
Boston, however, is not Tokyo. When resident Diane Kelly made plans to open Boston’s first cat cafe, “Purr,” on Chestnut Hill Ave in Brighton, she didn’t get peace and quiet—she got a war. The story of Purr Cat Cafe is straight out of a movie studio writers room: an outlandish idea imbued with outsize dreams, an enigmatic entrepreneur with murky motives, and the dramatic falling out between her and her partner that threatened to bring everything crashing down.
Many said Purr was doomed from the start. In the Boston animal kingdom, cats are hardly top dog. “I don’t want cats jumping around my food,” said Tyler Mabry, a Boston College student who lives nearby. “They’re sinful creatures.” In the end, though, it wasn’t the large, unstoppable horde of Labrador-loving Patriots fans that brought Purr screeching to a halt—it was the very community who’d want Purr in the first place: cat people.
It didn’t start out like that. “Purr Cafe will be a safe haven for homeless cats until they find their forever home,” Kelly wrote on the Purr website in April of last year, long before she had permission from city regulators to open. This was the plan: convert 167 Chestnut Hill Ave’s unfinished concrete basement into an industry-standard cat shelter where strays from a local animal rescue center could stay overnight, and have the main space upstairs be kitted out as a fully functioning cafe. The cats would come up to the cafe during the day, where patrons could sit and drink coffee while throwing pink, fluffy balls around for feline amusement.
It seemed like a goal with the best intentions, even if it was a little out there. Then everything went horribly wrong. City regulators okayed the proposal, but with one big caveat: she couldn’t serve food or beverages in a cat-housing space. Things seemed to keep moving, though—Kelly formed a partnership with Fuel America, the coffeeshop across the street, from which patrons could bring drinks if they wanted.
But the warning signs kept coming. She missed her grand opening date of June 1st, 2017, and another two dates after that. People started to get suspicious. The main space still looked barren, apart from a chair, a desk, and a few cat toys strewn across the floor. Worse, Kelly announced on social media that she was dissolving her partnership with Boston’s Forgotten Felines (BFF), a local cat shelter that was supposed to place the cats. “Unfortunately, BFF was not dependable to provide cats for Purr,” the cafe wrote on its Facebook page.
That’s when Purr’s feline behaviorist Kat Grace decided to let the cat out of the bag in a series of now-deleted comments on Purr’s Facebook page, sparking an astounding, months-long social-media saga, the drama in which rivals that of even the most epic of Russian novels.
“Hi everyone, Kat Grace, former General Manager of Purr Cat Cafe here,” she wrote in a several-hundred-word-long post, according to a trove of screenshots of the conversation on imgur.com. Grace went on to describe how most of the employees at Purr have distanced themselves from Kelly: “Despite our combined expertise, Diane [Kelly] chose to continually insult and ignore us,” Grace wrote. “Diane has no animal care background what-so-ever.”
Grace tells a story quite different from the one on Purr’s website of being a safe and harmonious home for cats. Grace says that the real reason Boston’s Forgotten Felines was calling it quits with Kelly was because she didn’t provide any support or facilities for the furry animals; Purr’s initial plan of converting the unfinished basement remained unfinished. “No beds, blankets or pillows, no hiding places, no cages, hardly any toys, no cat trees, no scratchers, *nothing*,” Grace wrote. “Diane wanted to place the cats, with no enrichment, in a basement with no windows, and cold hard floors.” Boston’s Forgotten Felines wasn’t interested in putting cats in such an environment, and told Kelly as much. Kelly told them to “fuck off” several times, according to Grace, a sentiment Kelly has also expressed to the United States Department of Agriculture.
BFFs no longer, it would seem: Kelly deleted Grace’s post, and so naturally Grace reposted it. This time Kelly decided not only to leave it up, but to respond—from the official Purr account. “Sick of the cat fights Boston!” she wrote. “I am learning that people in the cat world truly might be crazy.” In contrast, Kelly describes herself as a “Cat Enthusiast and a very smart business woman.”
If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s call cat people crazy. Dozens of bona-fide feline friends leapt to Grace’s defense on the Facebook page. Linda George Faber wrote: “I won’t be there and neither will all the crazy cat ladies that Diane offended.” The official cafe account responded in kind: “Why are you being such a bitch?” Kelly wrote.
Soon after, Grace posted a photo of the unfinished basement (a rather spartan space indeed) allegedly because “the public deserves to know the truth.” This was followed by a 12- comment-long thread that discussed why Kelly’s disposable food plates weren’t up to scratch. “Styrofoam?!? I could kick her,” wrote Sam Francis. “If this thing actually opens,” wrote Jon Salas, “tens of kittens will be sentenced to a lifetime of misery.” Another user named Mike Flex simply said, “Holy shit.”
Kelly tried to deflect some of the bad PR by hiring a spokesperson. Or rather, a spokes- cat: Kingpin Gussie, a tabby with a decidedly catty attitude. Along with a picture of Gussie, there’s a note—allegedly from the Kingpin himself—that says there is “a tremendous amount of people in this world that would rather focus on hate.” This didn’t stop the cat community from baring its claws. “Every time I think you’ve hit rock bottom, you manage a new low,” Molly White wrote, at the start of a five-paragraph-long comment. “How many times do people have to tell you that THEY AREN’T AFFILIATED with BFF!!!” wrote user Gab Rielle. “UNBELIEVABLE!” Others are enjoying the drama. “This is so golden,” wrote Monique Lebedew.
Grace intervened again, and this time Kelly decided to attack her personally, and again, from the official Purr account. “Dear Kat,” she wrote. “I know you enjoy having several different sexual partners.” People weren’t having any of it. “What the hell is wrong with you?” wrote Caitlyn Landry. “This is disgusting,” said Chris Mahoney. Things continued to escalate—to the point where Kelly threatened to sue Grace in a screenshot of an email. “Be prepared to stand up in court and tell the world how you lie,” Kelly wrote. “The truth is going to come out.”
Then on November 17, 2017, the impossible happened: Amid a health-and-safety investigation by the USDA, a long list of bitter, former employees, and mounting public scrutiny, Purr opened for business.
Well, kind of: most of the issues brought up had not addressed, and its opening times are mercurial to say the least: many express frustration at its erratic hours on Purr’s Yelp page, which sports a two-and-a-half star rating. “Purr is hardly ever open,” wrote user Kay G. of Medford. “The owner was not very pleasant.” User Jessica of Brookline wrote, “Sudden close. No advance notice, no apology, closing info not available on google or yelp and their own website is so confusing.”
Others—the cat people—managed to sneak in, though: “Awful place. The owner has forced her cats to be in a cafe when she's even said herself Gussie doesn't like being there,” wrote Jessica K. of Bedford. “LET GUSSIE GO HOME.” Cindy T. wrote, “don’t go here if you care about cats.”
Even the normals didn’t seem to be feeling it. In what is objectively a very good Yelp review, user Spittin Game In My White T complained about the high price of admission to Purr: “$18 an hour to purruse a meowntain of grimalkins on a Caturday afternoon?! You gotta be kitten me.”
Still, though, the criticisms appear to have largely dissipated: there are no new screenshots online, no new forum threads with dozens of rabid commenters. In many ways, Purr’s story ended with its opening. Like an early relationship, Kelly’s fling with her cat combatants burned hot and flamed out fast. And some people even had fun, according to Yelp. Stephanie Y. from Jamaica Plain wrote, “I love that we have something like this here in Brighton and will definitely continue to support this small local business.” Mike B. from Brooklyn wrote, “one of my favorite places to come in Boston.”
Purr is a plethora of parables all at once. The challenges of trying to take a beloved part of a different culture and make it fit in a very different one. The dangers of taking on a community of people that is more dog-eat-dog than many realize. And the oldest of fables; that in the end, being mean doesn’t get you very far—not even in Boston.