The Death of the Coffeehouse

I’m afraid our local coffeehouse is nothing special.  The high ceilings and wood floors do little to compensate for the awful home-roasted brew.  The baked goods are acceptable, the tea merely potable.  I recently brought my son here and watched him over the edge of my book while he sat with legs crossed, picking at crumbs of banana bread and reading Paddington.  He likes his Earl Grey with a great deal of sugar and milk.

As an undergraduate in the early ‘90s my friends and I used to frequent a Seattle coffeehouse known as the Last Exit.  The baristas were unpleasant, the coffee equally so, but it was still a favorite.  Late nights at the Last Exit were smoky, crowded and rowdy.  Professors declaimed godlike in crescents of adoring sophomores.  Unwashed hipsters plucked guitars beneath high windows.  Junior Marxists preached from the corners.  Others crowded round tables to watch games of chess or of go, and to whisper philosophically.  My friends and I would order our pulpy espresso drinks and sit behind piles of books and papers and pretend to study.  It was pretentious as hell, but heaven to us then.

Ten years later a new coffeehouse came to the neighborhood where my wife and I lived.  We got to know the owners before they opened shop and my wife became their first employee.  Here the coffee was reliably excellent.  The locals would wander in to read or talk.  There was a piano in the back, and couches.  Patrons ranged from age four to eighty-four and old movies were shown once a week, projected onto the wall.  Twice a year the owners would throw parties with gobs of fancy food and wine and invite the whole neighborhood.  I used to help my wife clean up after closing shifts and we once saw the aurora borealis as we walked home.  That was heavenly too.

What’s so wrong with the coffeehouse that serves the neighborhood where we live today?  It can’t be just the coffee.  The image of my son sitting there with his cup of tea and his feet dangling from the seat might help endear the place to me.  But the other patrons all sit alone staring at their laptops, each monopolizing a table for four while snakepits of power cords twist round their ankles.  I don’t want to talk to anyone – I’m not an outgoing person or very friendly toward strangers.  I just want to feel like there’s someone else in the room.

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7 Comments

Filed under Misc.

7 responses to “The Death of the Coffeehouse

  1. So, I may be leaving this twice. I apologize if this is so.

    Reading about your coffee house experiences, I could really relate. I used to work in a nice, small coffee house in Eugene, and an eccentric coffee house in Reno, and doing so I too experience the “heavenly”-ness, as you put it.

    And then, I’ve been in my new (now old) place for nearly six years now, and haven’t yet found a good coffee house. Not only that, it’s as though I feel increasingly alienated when I frequent these local shops, as if I stick out like a thorn in their sides. I think there must be something wrong with me.

    In any case, I really enjoyed this. I also wanted to let you know: I may not always comment, but I often stop by your blog. I think your writing is really great.

    • Ian Wolcott

      Thanks. And sorry about the lost comments – they both ended up in the spam folder for some reason, but I think I’ve fixed that now.

      Looks like you’ve had some amazing traffic on your blog recently, by the way. A link from Lady Gaga?

  2. Gaw

    The better coffee house experience, as you beautifully describe it, is quite different to what we have over here, where you expect a touch of anomie in a coffee shop. In Britain, pubs provide the equivalent. However, what puzzles a Brit is how you manage to achieve any conviviality (presumably) without the presence of alcohol?

  3. Ian Wolcott

    Wasn’t London thick with coffeehouses in Johnson’s day?

    I wonder if coffee and alcohol don’t serve separate functions. Coffee seems to sharpen thought (and hence conversation), while alcohol blunts it. Or maybe that’s just my experience.

    I want to make a lazy generalization and say that, for Americans, alcohol (unless it’s wine at a meal) is generally consumed alone, even when in company; whereas coffee is something we prefer to consume in company, even when alone. But I’m sure it wouldn’t hold up.

    Seattle and the Pacific Northwest have a coffeehouse culture that you don’t find in northern California, where I live now. I suppose it’s the gray weather up north that makes people want to spend more time indoors while still getting out.

  4. Dave Lull

    Retired blogger Michael Blowhard on “Coffee-house Culture”:

    “I’m not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. ‘It’s open! And everyone is having a say!’ — the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven’t yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway?”

    Continued here:

    http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/2006/09/coffeehouse_cul.html

  5. Dave Lull

    Robert Darnton in his NYRBlog posting “Blogging, Now and Then” suggests that 18th century coffeehouses were “a bountiful source” of news for a “pre-modern blog”:

    http://blogs.nybooks.com/post/456582401/blogging-now-and-then

    I wonder whether these days reading blogs replaces conversation as “a bountiful source” of “news” for many of the coffeehouse denizens.

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