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February 11, 2014 10:54 AM   Subscribe

"For centuries, coffee was used as a conversation stimulant. But in the present-day U.S., it functions primarily as productivity booster." In London, in Prague, Paris, Cairo, coffeeshops were the place to gain information and to discuss it. Taverns and saloons have had their historical role as well, especially as a place where people from all walks of life could mingle and share ideas. "Crucially, these are also semi-public spaces that can deliver a measure of privacy, a place where it’s easy to congregate yet hard for authorities to monitor." In America in the internet age, however, coffeeshops are where we work and bars are...well, not where we go to talk, anyway, if the decibel levels are any indication. Where then are we to foment our revolutions? Begin our art movements? Or dissect our dolphins?

Al Jazeera English producer and presenter Hassan Ibrahim discusses the importance of the coffeeshop in Cairo's history, including its role in the Arab Spring.

(Previously, A History of London's Coffee Houses on the Public Domain Review and uproar over attempts to limit free WiFi in NYC coffeeshops.)
posted by theweasel (32 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Coffee house culture is discussed in great detail in Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon." Or at least I think it is. It was a really long book.
posted by lagomorphius at 11:04 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Where then are we to ...
MetaFilter
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:05 AM on February 11 [16 favorites]


I actually wrote my MA on the London coffeehouse in the 18th Century. If anyone has a question, I'll watch this thread and try to answer.
posted by festivemanb at 11:15 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Occupy Wall Street was in some inchoate sense an attempt to create such a space: a physical agora in every large city.
posted by ocschwar at 11:18 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


the London coffeehouse in the 18th Century

Did they have similar-flavoured coffee to what you can find today at a coffee shop?
posted by bbqturtle at 11:19 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I can't say I feel strongly one way or another about coffee shops, but one thing I can really get behind being pretty annoyed by is how freaking loud bars are. 90-100 dB at a bar is insane and really quite bad for you, to say nothing of it being impossible to talk to anyone over a beer without screaming at them. I can get on a high horse about this I totally realize, but seriously bars aren't supposed to be rock concerts. Get a little sound pressure level meter app for your phone and just check the next time you're at a bar. More than an hour or two at 90 dB and you're going to hurt yourself. I dunno, I just feel like when I go to a bar...I'm here to destroy my liver folks, not my ears.

These days I usually just drink at home - that way I can at least be there to keep the kids off my lawn.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:21 AM on February 11 [25 favorites]


festivemanb, I'll bite! How did the Brits take their coffee back then? If my time machine ever gets off the ground and I arrive in a 18th century London, what does the coffee shop menu look like?
posted by boubelium at 11:23 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Where then are we to foment our revolutions? Begin our art movements? Or dissect our dolphins?

Nowhere, if recent history is any judge. Most people (in the Western world, anyway) don't really talk or even think about that sort of stuff, in my experience. Art, science, and political reform are not really on the average person's radar. What people think about on the whole is acquiring or maintaining a stable job, getting themselves and their families through life with a minimum of fuss and discomfort, buying things, having sex, and finding a way to relieve daily stress through alcohol and/or undemanding entertainment. Everything else in society has been masterfully refined to streamline, encourage, and reinforce that outlook at the expense of such dangerously intellectual pursuits as art, science, and political activism. That's how it works, you know?
posted by Scientist at 11:26 AM on February 11 [13 favorites]


This was the final death of the spirit of the coffee house.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:34 AM on February 11


Living near Boston, I actually found several bars in the city that maintained a relatively reserved, refined atmosphere, where one might often find stimulating conversation.

Unfortunately the drinks started at $12 and the entrees started at $40.
posted by The Confessor at 11:37 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


This topic has received hugely significant and widely-recognized attention (over 12,000 citations) from one of the most influential intellectuals of our time. I'm surprised Habermas wasn't included in the post itself, to be honest.
posted by clockzero at 11:37 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]


This is wonderful. I was immediately reminded of David Liss' books.
posted by CincyBlues at 11:47 AM on February 11


This was the final death of the spirit of the coffee house.

I thought your links were going to lead to this.
posted by saturday_morning at 11:47 AM on February 11


A: Internet, internet, veterinary school
posted by penduluum at 11:47 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: Where We Dissect Our Dolphins.
posted by mhoye at 11:48 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


The brewpubs in kalamazoo are all pretty reasonably volumed. There used to be quite a few nice, niche coffee shops but those all shut down and a few of the old buildings now hold brewpubs. Not a bad shift if you ask me
posted by rebent at 11:49 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


If you want to go to bars and have quiet conversations you can always take up smoking. The downsides are fairly notable, but you can usually have a good conversation outside.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:51 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Did they have similar-flavoured coffee to what you can find today at a coffee shop?


It probably tasted pretty bad. For one, for tax reasons the coffeehouses often had to brew their own coffee at the very beginning of the day--which meant that by the time a mid-afternoon sipper sat down to his drink, his coffee may have been bubbling for half a day. People also made coffee cocktails--which sound disgusting (I don't have my references here to give you one). One of the first uses of coffee was as a vomit, specially applied to the tummy by means of a whalebone shaft called a provang.

As far as Habermas' story about the coffeehouse goes, I'd say too much has been made of it. He worked mainly from secondary sources, for one.

My research actually looks at the coffeehouse's decline. First I showed that the traditional narrative of decline is kinda just wrong--there were as many coffeehouses in London in 1780 as there were in 1720 (though because of population growth the number of coffeehouses per capita over that time decreased, but no matter--coffeehouses were alive and well). I argue that the vibrant, multifaceted life of the early coffeehouse condensed into specialized, semi-professional semi-public spaces, like clubs and companies.

Sorry for any typos, I'm at work and should be working.
posted by festivemanb at 11:53 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


fomenting a revolution requires cohesion of revolutionaries and commonality of interest. all you have now is facebook.
posted by bruce at 12:06 PM on February 11


In the 19th century, at least, the prescribed coffee preparation was "positively an essence, black as ink, strong as Hercules, and hot as—any simile you please."
posted by Iridic at 12:18 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


fomenting a revolution requires cohesion of revolutionaries and commonality of interest. all you have now is facebook.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring#Social_media_and_the_Arab_Spring
posted by I-baLL at 12:20 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


When I was in my late teens (in the 1980s), at that age where I was transitioning from being a kid to a young adult with social ties in the adult world outside of family and school, there was a very good coffee house. It was a place where people could (and did) stay for hours socializing, with a regular clientele ranging from high-school kids to people in their sixties. The older crowd was quite tolerant of us youngsters and many hours were spent over the years having cross-generational conversations about anything and everything. Most of the older people were well educated, along with many involved with the downtown arts scene. The younger crowd were kids into the indie music of our generation, and most went on to get college degrees and/or do something interesting in their adult lives. (Several Pacific Northwestern musicians who at least a few people on MeFi would recognize originated from this social circle.)

The café had an unusual layout with multiple nooks for more intimate conversations (it wasn’t all one big room), a couch, free newspapers/magazines to read in-house (none for sale but papers like the NYT, periodicals like the Whole Earth Review, and whatever people left to donate to the reading rack; I should also mention there was a bookstore with an excellent periodicals section a few blocks away). Attached was a small (but good) movie theater, showing foreign and art films (new and old). The walls of the café were used as a gallery space, with a new show every month. Further making it a place to socialize, the hours varied over the years but generally it was open till 10pm weekdays and as late as midnight on Friday & Saturday (even later for special events).

This place was a hub of social activity downtown for about a decade before it closed due to unusual financial circumstances (too complicated to get into here, but there were rumors of embezzlement by the original owner). This place was so loved that there were actually community meetings of people trying to figure out a plan to save the place.

All though these years there were other “good” downtown cafés, including locally-roasted coffee, etc., but they were all of the more modern sort of atmosphere where you went to get coffee and maybe lunch, but not to actually socialize in the same way.
posted by D.C. at 12:24 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


festivemanb

coffee cocktails--which sound disgusting

Heresy, man.

I loved ordering my coffee at a bar and just telling the bartender to dump shit in it.

It's almost a foolproof drink order. I've had my coffee with whiskey, with baileys, with frangelico, with amaretto, with sambuca, with vodka, with rum, with just about every sort of liquor you can think of, often with a nice cap of whipped cream on the top, and sometimes with a cherry as well.

The best part is that most bartenders don't know shit about portioning liquor in coffee, so even if you specify the additive you still don't know exactly what you're going to get. It could be a dud, or it could be a round trip to happytown.

The coffee cocktails were probably the hardest thing for me to give up when I admitted I had a drinking problem.

These days I just do shots.
posted by The Confessor at 12:32 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


Haven't you seen the American Express commercials? Coffee houses need to be free of revolutionaries so that Americans can safely complete banking transactions.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:33 PM on February 11


The Confessor

I meant the coffee cocktails of the 17th and 18th century. I'll try to dig some examples up later. I love me a liquory coffee.
posted by festivemanb at 12:56 PM on February 11


and bars are...well, not where we go to talk, anyway, if the decibel levels are any indication.

Bars are where "we" go to drink and my own massive research into the subject suggests that the complete lack of intelligent conversation to be found in such establishments is completely uncorrelated to the level of background noise.
posted by three blind mice at 1:08 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


My city used to have lots of places like that, D.C. Especially near the University. But now there's only a couple left. The absolute number of coffee shops is probably the same, but the funky independent places closed and were replaced by chains. First small chains, but then they were bought out by the big ones like Starbucks and Second Cup, sort of like ecological succession in a forest.

Sitting in a chain coffee house isn't very conducive to conversation with strangers. There aren't enough chairs, and there's always a line of people behind you, so the whole atmosphere is subtly competitive.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:42 PM on February 11


Damn their warnings, damn their lies. They will see the people rise!
We need a sign...To rally the people...To call them to arms...To bring them in line!


I think we romanticize coffee shops. Just give me a skinny latte, no foam, chocolate sprinkles.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:49 PM on February 11


Bars and background noise. When my favorite bartender is on duty I am given full reign to control the music in said bar cause I righty figure the elderly homosexuals that frequent this bar would rather listen to Les Paul and Rosemary Clooney than the screaming early 90s electro the younger bartenders prefer.

I can't remember the last time I was at an actual cafe and just talked for hours ( wait no I can it was today but today was unusual.) but I did it all the time in HS/College, mostly cause I couldn't get into bars. These days if I want to talk to someone I just show up at thier house cause everyone I know works from home and could use an excuse not to work.
posted by The Whelk at 2:23 PM on February 11


> Nowhere, if recent history is any judge. Most people (in the Western world, anyway) don't really talk or even think about that sort of stuff, in my experience. Art, science, and political reform are not really on the average person's radar. What people think about on the whole is acquiring or maintaining a stable job, getting themselves and their families through life with a minimum of fuss and discomfort, buying things, having sex, and finding a way to relieve daily stress through alcohol and/or undemanding entertainment. Everything else in society has been masterfully refined to streamline, encourage, and reinforce that outlook at the expense of such dangerously intellectual pursuits as art, science, and political activism. That's how it works, you know?

Right, that's what the revolutions of the past were for -- to secure a safe, comfortable life for most people. Now (in the Western world, anyway) we have it. Of course we're not going to rebel again -- we already won. This is what winning looks like. Whatever aesthetic problems you may still have, they're minor in the historical scheme of things, and definitely not worth endangering a pretty good deal over.

Now, I'm not sure if I completely buy that line of thinking, but it is soul-searingly depressing, which means there's probably something to it.
posted by officer_fred at 2:36 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


bars are...well, not where we go to talk, anyway, if the decibel levels are any indication.

You need to move somewhere with more than just the one kind of bar.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:21 PM on February 11


I have been going to coffee shops or houses at least every week since I was 15, and have gradually increased the frequency of my coffee shop visits until I was going every day by age 25. In law school, I went twice a day.

Coffee shops are how I get to know a city, and are the first thing I look for in a new place. I have never to my knowledge seen a revolution fomented, but I have had the privilege of making the acquaintance of police officers and people who are homeless and artists and office workers eeking out an hour for themselves at 6:00 AM.

There is nowhere else I would rather spend my time when I am not at work or at home. I can drink delicious espresso (which, in the US, is improving all the time), I can talk to strangers or friends, I can read while listening in on other people's conversations, and after that, I can put on my headphones and work on my novel before going to the office.

Here in the Triangle we have a growing number of good coffee shops. Cocoa Cinnamon in Durham is always packed, lively with conversation. The coffee and chocolate are wonderful. It is a space grown from and important to the community, and also host to plenty of people working on laptops. The quiet of knowledge workers and the social function of coffee shops do not always seem to be mutually exclusive. Morning Times is a great distillation of downtown Raleigh, and they pull a lovely shot as well. As with Driade in Chapel Hill.

But for any of you in Minneapolis who haven't been to Dogwood, please go and have a shot for me. The location is strange (a glassy alcove in Calhoun Square), but it makes the people-watching wonderful.
posted by Handstand Devil at 7:31 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


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