You know those annoying people who hang out in coffee joints for hours on end, either chatting, doing business deals or working on their laptops?
Yeah, I’m one of them.
Before you judge, hear me out.
Do you know where coffee houses come from? Most people don’t.
All modern Starbucks and other coffee places descend directly from an Oxford coffee house that opened in 1650. That shop descended from similar establishments in Vienna, which themselves were modeled on coffee houses in Mecca and Istanbul and elsewhere in the Muslim world. (Coincidentally this photo was taken at an Istanbul Starbucks.)
Coffee was a novel beverage to Europeans in 1650. The first Oxford house was a hit, and coffee houses rapidly proliferated across the country, especially in London.
These establishments fueled the industrial revolution and the enlightenment — societal transformations that never could have happened in ale houses.
Their purpose wasn’t to dispense coffee. Entire businesses were set up and run inside the coffee houses. The world’s first newspapers were run out of them, then pamphlets distributed in them. Insurance companies operated entirely out of coffee houses. (Lloyd’s of London was named after Edward Lloyd’s coffee house on Tower Street, which opened in 1688.) Isaac Newton did most of his argumentation and idea exchanging with other scientists in the Grecian coffee house on the Strand.
For more than three centuries, coffee houses have served primarily as offices and meeting spaces for business people, journalists and intellectuals and secondarily as places to buy coffee.
Coffee houses came into existence not as a place where people are supposed to line up like addicts at a methadone clinic, then slink out. They’re a social meeting space for the community.
There’s a reason why 50 cents worth of coffee costs $4 at Starbucks and other places. You’re paying mainly for the space. You're paying for the seat and the table and the WiFi and the outlet and the bathroom and the climate control and the lighting.
In recent decades, we’ve been trained like lab rodents to drop our cash and leave. McDonald's even trained the public to bus their own tables. In fact, the idea of buying coffee at a coffee house and taking it to go is an extraordinarily new phenomenon. They’ve recently conned us into paying the premium for the real estate, then feeling bad about using what we paid for.
The transition from coffee houses as the public’s place of business to the coffee house as a fast-food joint is part of the disgusting consumerization of the human animal.
We’re not supposed to be citizens, thinkers or makers. We’re supposed to be consumers. Give me your money, then fuck off.
Ironically, Starbucks gets it. Considered derisively as the McDonald’s of coffee houses, the characterization is totally unfounded. Starbucks is committed to allowing anyone to use their WiFi free for as long as they want, at least in the United States and many other countries. Their stores have tables and outlets and couches and barstools. They invite everyone to hang out and linger. And there are other coffee places that understand the purpose of a coffee house as well.
But far too many believe a coffee house is just a place to extract money from customers, then force them to leave by failing to provide a social space. And when customers can’t find a table because people are staying too long, they don’t blame the establishment for failing to provide enough tables. They blame the campers.
My view is that if today’s coffee houses don’t know what a coffee house is for, they should close up shop and get out of the business. Maybe they can open a McDonald’s franchise.
Just don’t blame the customers who are using coffee houses for their intended and vital purpose.