The High Street where I live is exclusively made up of two types of establishment. Or that’s the way it seems to me. There are coffee shops and there are charity shops. It is a decidedly odd state of affairs. In one you can buy a coffee, in a bewildering range of incarnations, for two pounds. In the other, wave two pounds around and you can pick up a couple of CDs, each still with their £9.99 sticker on them from HMV. Or maybe this dichotomous retail experience summarises just where Britain is at this moment. Stuck in a no man’s land between a recession, and a willingness to pay over the odds for a cup of something that seems to imply we lead a far more sophisticated, urbane existence than we actually do.
Obviously ‘Friends’ has got a lot to do with it. ‘Friends’ was, and is, filled with young, beautiful people, leading young, beautiful lives and when they aren’t hanging out in each other’s apartments, these YBPs are hanging out at the coffee shop. ‘Frasier’ also had a big influence too. It threw a workplace into the mix, but that only created a Bermuda Triangle of cool wit that had at its vertices an apartment, a radio station and a coffee shop.
Now while we may never have been as young and as beautiful as the cast of ‘Friends’ , or live in an apartment as Bohemian as the one that was their central stage, we could hang out in a coffee shop just like they did. Or like Frasier Crane did, and just like him, affect a connoisseur-like knowledge of which particular denomination of coffee we adhered to as being the One True Faith.
So far, so aspirational. But aping the social patterns seeping out of the electronic hearth of a glowing screen will only satisfy for so long. Keep it up and after a while you begin to suspect that you’re being a bit of a twat.
All of which leads to the realisation that while we can’t be like them, we can be like us. And what better way to be like us than to hang out with other people like us? And there you have it, the real reason why coffee shops have conquered the High Street. It’s nothing to do with coffee. It’s everything to do with community.
It’s to do with self-selecting, micro-communities that converge temporarily for the length of time it takes to imbibe a skinny cappuccino and munch through an over-sized, over-priced cookie that never, ever tastes as good as it looks. Even when we sit in a coffee shop all on our own, drinking whatever we drink, we are part of a community. A community of people at ease with sitting on our own in coffee shops, reading newspapers, or books, or checking our messages, or working on our laptops, or just watching the world go by.
On the other hand, it might be that we fancied a hot drink and could do with a bit of a sit down.
That may well be what it’s all about too. In which case, all that stuff I’ve written so far is way too deep, and maybe a tad pretentious. Probably a result of sitting around in coffee shops too much trying to think profound thoughts. But then again, sitting around trying to think profound thoughts has always been a popular pastime in coffee shops.
As early as 1512 (which is almost a quarter past three) coffee houses were banned in Mecca because they were considered to be a hotbed of political activism. While by the 17th century a French traveller to Persia described a vibrant, bustling scene with mullahs sermonising, poets poeting, chess players chessing and where ‘those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom without being fearful’.( Interestingly, no mention is made in these early accounts of the coffee house milieu of ‘babyccinnos’ so I suspect that they may be a relatively recent innovation).
The coffee house reached Europe via Venice, the city state through which the Ottoman Empire traded with the lands to the west. The first one recorded amongst the canals dates back to 1645. Seven years later Britain had two coffee shops, in Oxford, and in the City Of London at Cornhill. Twenty five years on from that there were more than 3000 similar establishments throughout the nation. And by 1676 a coffee house had opened across the Atlantic in Boston.
The coffee shop was a phenomenon that was conquering the world. And changing it too. The Cafe Procope in Paris was where the leading lights of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau got on with their enlightening. While back in England Charles the Second tried to shut down the London coffee houses as ‘places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.’ No wonder they were popular.
As well as becoming meeting places for those with an axe to grind, many coffee houses also became de facto club houses for various occupations. Hardly surprising then that Lloyds of London started in one run by Mr Edward Lloyd and that the London Stock Exchange developed in an establishment called Jonathan’s Coffee House where stock and commodity prices were listed.
What’s striking when you consider this history is that the coffee shop could both be a place where people could plot the overthrow of the existing establishment, but also be a place for them to establish establishments as establishment as Lloyds and the Stock Exchange.
The basic lesson to draw from all this is that things start in coffee shops.
The 1950s boom in folk music in America was nurtured in any number of places where the yoof of the day sat around, hanging off the sides of coffee cups, listening to a lone performer, perched on a stool, strumming a guitar. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez both cut their teeth performance-wise in such watering holes. Back in Britain, however, the musical scene that sprung up through coffee shops was less radically counter culture and perhaps a bit more over-the-counter culture.
The 2i’s Coffee Bar in the basement at 59 Old Compton Street in Soho is now commemorated by a plaque on the wall that states it was the ‘ Birthplace of British Rock’N’Roll and the popular music industry’. Okay so America got Dylan, Baez and any number of other poet/troubadours wielding guitars with barbed wire for strings, but we got Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Joe Brown and Brian ‘Licorice’ Locking. One-nil to us, I think.
All of which leads to the question as to whether today anything world changing is being hatched over the lattes and frappuccinos of Britain. The answer is yes. It’s just that we don’t know what it is yet. After all, wind back a few years and would anyone guess that the lone woman scribbling away at a corner table in The Elephant House cafe in Edinburgh was writing a book about a wizard going to boarding school? Probably not.
But as I walk along my High Street and note that yet another shop that has closed down is all set to re-open as a coffee shop my problem is this: judging by what’s going on round here when people sit at their tables, nurturing their coffee, the only world changing plan they seem to be coming up with is ‘wouldn’t it be great to open a coffee shop?’
Which kind of misses the point.