The original coffeehouses were public gathering places. They were social spaces where people could argue politics, get and share news, and just generally enjoy each others' company. This trend persisted despite attempts to ban these meetinghouses and the caffeinated beverage that drew people together. Coffee—and caffeine—had us hooked on this type of downtime. But it wouldn’t last.
In the early 90s, the coffee culture changed: leisure shifted and work began to travel with us. Laptops, smart phones, WIFI—the coffeehouse became an extension of the workspace. But perhaps because we’re in the midst of the Great Recession, people aren’t working quite as much anymore. It may not be by choice, but fewer people are plugged in all the time in the same way they might have been before. And as the working culture changes, the coffeehouse proprietors have the chance to revive the coffee culture (and admittedly, save themselves a few dollars as well).
Increasingly, as a recent NYT article reports, a new type of coffeehouse is emerging. It doesn’t have the comfy chairs and large tables we’re accustomed to. It resembles a bar, featuring long skinny tables and futuristic stools. You grab your coffee, you drink your coffee and hang for a few minutes, and then you leave. You don’t settle in to work. And the reduced seating forces more mixing, even if it’s to say “excuse me” while you shift a stool for access. Could this bring back the convivial atmosphere of these spaces?
I was intrigued, so I decided to investigate. I didn't even have to travel very far—I just needed to play closer attention to my surroundings. When the Starbucks across the street from my job reopened earlier this year, it had been transformed into one of these “coffee bars.” Not a café, not a coffeehouse, or a coffee shop. A coffee bar. You went in, you had a drink, and you headed out. If people lingered, it looked like an overcrowded nightclub with the endless line adding a false sense of importance to the space. But it was livelier. People talked more on line—with companions and with strangers as they shared door space. Small civilities—“Excuse me, I need the sugar.” “I’m sorry. I just need to grad a napkin.”—changed the formerly quiet, but clogged store into a buzzing, bustling den.
Regulars seemed to have mixed responses though. Cary Maines who has been drinking coffee and visiting Starbucks for 14 years, is having a hard time adjusting. “I don’t feel like I can stay. It’s always crowded. You can’t really move or have much space to yourself,” she said. Cary first used Starbucks as a place to study in college. For her, coffee and work have always gone together—and to work, you need your space and your tools, things that Cary feels are missing from the new design. She often takes breaks from her desk there with her laptop in tow.
Mike Donnelly’s laptop sat in its bag under his stool. Sure, he used Starbucks to check emails and work on some writing, but he doesn’t feel pressured to do so anymore. His description of the new atmosphere echoed Cary’s: “It’s busy. It’ sweeps you along. It doesn’t have much room to work, but there are lots of other things going on.” Mike’s comments imply that he can enjoy other activities at the coffee bar other than focusing on work even if those other activities are brief.
Of course, there are financial benefits for owners as well. Smaller set-ups require smaller venues, which translates into lower rents. And they cut out a lot of the overhead—someone has to pay for that free WIFI, right?—while hopefully serving more customers. But maybe coffee drinkers can get something out of it too. And the experience of coffee can be a largely social one again.