Friday, February 17, 2012

Losing Grounds

The culture of the coffee house is endangered.

I'm not talking about the homogenous cookie-cutter corporate coffee experience that Starbucks or regional chains like Peets or Caribou offer. Those places are fine if you need a decent cup of coffee, and some kind of baked good. I'm not a snob - I'll use those places for those purposes. But they are to the coffee house what Subway is to the delicatessen. Yeah, they'll feed the body, but they completely misunderstand the soul of the thing they do.

What I'm speaking of are the quirky, funky places, almost uniformly staffed by scruffy young people, that invite creative people of any stripe to come at all hours in order to loiter, to read, to work, to perform -- to engage in the things that make for the artful life. They're harder and harder to come by. Here in NYC, there's fewer than a dozen of them that are open after 8 PM, and there are exactly four that I'm aware of that are open past midnight, only two of which go all night. In this place where the beats, and the abstract expressionists, and the hippies, and the pops, and the punks, the new wave, and so many other defiant groups of creative people came to be, that's a real shame. Here in NY you'll find no shortage of bars, but clear headed work doesn't happen in bars.

I'm an inveterate coffee house person. It started when I was a kid, sitting outside of Common Grounds, a coffee house in Northridge where every night my high school buddies and I would sit outside and smoke things and drink coffee and bullshit the night away until Jesus, the cook and cleaning guy, would tell us it was time to go and we'd help him carry the chairs in. When I moved to San Diego if it wasn't Wired, where I basically lived, it was Bread and Cie, or Gelato Vera. Oakland found me at the Temescal Cafe every day. Northampton gave me JavaNet. And New York gave me The Verb and Think Coffee on Mercer.

Here's what I saw while I was working at Think last night:

They were playing the Brandenberg concertos. It was planned a few days out. Now, I don't go to coffee houses for entertainment, but I love the fact that the staff of college kids who work at this place is able to say, "Sure, you can have your underground classical gig here." That sure won't happen at a Starbucks.

I'm not opposed to corporations in a militant fashion. They're a fact of life, and many of them do things to be good citizens. But there is a rape of homogenization happening in America, where I worry the soul of this country is being lost. And by soul, I'm speaking of the creative individuality of small business. The ability for people to build places that reflect the character of the folks who work there, and speak to the spirit of the patrons who come in the door. I'm talking about a world built by people for people, not by entities for consumers. Some things are more important than money. The human spirit is intangible, and cannot be bought or sold, but it can be nourished and destroyed. Don't believe anyone who tells you it isn't worth far more than money.

The coffee house is just one facet of our culture that's endangered, and it's one that's important to me. And we'll survive without them. But it shouldn't have to come to that.

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