Good Morning, Evolving Coffee Culture!

From a recent article by Tara Clapper on CultureMob.com:

Now when I enter Starbucks, it’s a completely different environment. It’s not the “third place” environment it’s supposed to be, but it is what the customers want: a drug shop. They’re guzzling caffeine and plugging in. The caffeine hastens their pace when typing and texting; they must have tired hands. They meet their friends at Starbucks, then sit in silence, laptop-to-laptop instead of face-to-face, studying over instant messenger instead of breaking that new Starbucks silence.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that coffeeshop culture has rapidly evolved from a vibrant meeting house of spirited conversation and activity to a public place where people can still isolate themselves from others via their personal tech devices. As far as Starbucks  is concerned, I’m only surprised that it hasn’t happened sooner, given the customer base the company attracts (high school and college students, urban office workers). Clapper makes the assumption, however, that this change is a corporate coffeeshop trend – at the end of the article, she cites choosing to meet a friend at an independent coffeeshop so they are free to converse without fear of the icy glares bouncing off laptop screens and IPhones. But depending on the independent she chooses, she might face the same tech-oppression.

From 61ccafe.com

While I’ll grant that many independent coffee houses have the environment Clapper is going for, she is ignoring the entire class of independents that are just as tech-friendly and conversation-defiant as Starbucks. Squirrel Hill’s 61C, for instance, is far more about giving local college students and professionals a place to get caffeinated and utilize a strong wireless signal then it is about about guitar-strumming musicians playing underneath the din of overlapping conversations, laughter, and shared experience.

There is very little bohemian about the 61C, and I don’t say this as a negative, necessarily, just as a fact. It has a clean, polished interior with little square tables and wooden chairs plotted in a strategic manner so as to allow as much seating as possible. It has a nice, streamlined counter with a display case for baked goodies and a fine selection of coffee drinks, tea, and other cafe refreshments. It does have an outdoor patio, a little nook cradled by a protective wall of cement blocks and sunflowers. Still, it is a cafe largely set up for people who need to spend some time in front of their laptops, often times while checking their phones and listening to music on their Ipod.

Unlike Clapper, I don’t believe that this is a corruption of the intention of the coffeehouse. It takes all kinds. While I can identify a few coffee places in the city that largely serve the laptop crowd, I can name far more that are striving to create the ideal third place for locals to gather. Neither one is inherently better than the other (you can’t even really say that one neighborhood’s Starbucks is worse than another neighborhood’s indie coffeehouse, because, as it is in coffee itself, it’s all about personal preference and taste), and both are incredibly useful to a community.

I used to mock places like the 61C because the idea of people congregating just to use their computers without sharing a single word struck me as absurd. Then came my senior year of college, and I spent at least three hours of every day at the local Eat’n’Park, leeching wireless, chugging coffee, trying to pound out page after page of thesis. I could have tried to work at home, or I could have stayed on campus to work, but truthfully, I needed a transition place to do my writing, a place that was clear of the complications tied with either home or school’s responsibilities. I needed more from my third place than social contact – I needed a bit of peace.

The idea of the third place is evolving with the culture. It used to be that people needed a place to gather. Now that we have many, many spaces for gathering, we have a better variety in the kind of gathering we choose to do. Sometimes that means large groups of people interacting in a personable way – talking, shouting, singing, dancing, laughing. Sometimes that means a group of people choosing to share space while fulfilling the other needs they have. It’s the fact that we have these places at all, that if we need them, they are available to us.

Even Starbucks.

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One response to “Good Morning, Evolving Coffee Culture!

  1. Thanks for replying to my article. I have to say that Starbucks and other coffee shops are giving customers what they want. A customer-first attitude is a good thing, especially since people want Internet access.

    Perhaps the independent cafe culture is a regional thing. Most of the independents around here (Philadelphia, New Jersey) include spaces intended for both social interaction and laptop activity.

    My problem isn’t with Starbucks or coffee shops–they’re just providing a comfortable environment for customers–it’s with the group of teens sitting there and texting instead of having a conversation. It just seems like the new cafe environment is conducive to that.

    I was recently in a Starbucks in Cherry Hill. They had a section of games for public use, but most people were on computers.

    Alternately, you could say that the Internet is now a main source for news for most people, so a person sitting there with a laptop now might have come to the same coffee shop at the same time a few years ago with his face behind a newspaper, a more ‘accepted’ activity. Starbucks just made news more accessible to him.

    In America, there wasn’t much difference between a cafe and a salon (a place for discussion, not a place to get your hair done) until recently. Technology’s taken over. I am blatantly annoyed when I’m having a quiet, private conversation with another person in a Starbucks and people on their computers glare. They glare at the baristas, too.

    Sometimes I write on my computer in cafes, but if I don’t want to be disturbed, I bring headphones.

    People use computers to read news or ebooks and for social media. I won’t lie–I’m a full-time freelance writer but I almost always have e-mail and Facebook up because promotion is a part of my job. It just seems like many people now prefer electronic communication to personal interaction–even if the other person is sitting nearby. I almost feel like cafes have a duty to encourage interaction and discussion.

    Coffee and tea consumption are rituals, rituals sometimes shared with others, sometimes not. I am mourning the loss of that first type of ritual.

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