"to write in cafés is such a cliché that it needs no explanation"
September 23, 2015 6:20 AM   Subscribe

In London, the coffeehouse offered the threat not of male homosexuality but rather of a different kind of dangerous male-on-male behavior, namely "wasting time." Coffee itself was often thought to be disgusting — a few of the names used by detractors were "syrup of soot," "a foreign fart," "a sister of the common sewer," "resembling the river Styx," "Pluto's diet-drink," "horsepond liquor" — but even for those who thought coffee led to medical problems, especially impotence, it was not as threatening as the spaces where it was drunk. Some perceived the coffeehouse as pure waste, a corrupting influence on London society, while others celebrated it with a strange enthusiasm.
Writing in Cafés: A Personal History by food historian Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft.
posted by Kattullus (65 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm seeing all kinds of branding opportunities for craft roasters here.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:24 AM on September 23, 2015 [13 favorites]


> Coffee itself was often thought to be disgusting

Well, if there are writers around, then the coffee bloody better should be disgusting. If you drink it, it bloody well should rearrange every single brain cell of yours. But true, most of the time, the real purpose of coffee is to get cold in the mug while you write.
posted by wwwwolf at 6:27 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


"resembling the river Styx,"
That's a feature.

"Pluto's diet-drink," "horsepond liquor"
My diner orders just got 20% more colorful.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:31 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Years ago I saw a young guy in the front window of Toronto's Tequila Bookworm a) wearing a beret, b) with an open laptop on the table in front of him and c) VERY CONSPICUOUSLY holding up Remembrance Of Things Past by Proust in such a way that nobody who walked by could fail to see that he was reading it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:38 AM on September 23, 2015 [39 favorites]


Years ago, I think it probably a summer day in 1988, I went in a coffee shop that didn't have that guy in it.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:39 AM on September 23, 2015 [35 favorites]


I get very curious when I see people reading books in public. I kinda wish all people held their books in such a way that I could see the title and author.

Where's our surveillance society when we need it, huh?
posted by Kattullus at 6:45 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


Kattullus: someone here in Toronto used to have a blog named Seen Reading that you might like.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:52 AM on September 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


Years ago, I think it probably a summer day in 1988, I went in a coffee shop that didn't have that guy in it.

Are YOU that guy?
posted by Fizz at 6:58 AM on September 23, 2015 [13 favorites]


I like reading at cafes and bars, and people are not shy about asking what the book is if they can't see the cover.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:59 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Welp I guess I'm going to have to promote my new "Horsepond Liquor" roast ahead of schedule, thanks a lot Kattullus.

It's like a French roast but with more literary prescriptivism and large black glasses, with hints of salty tears shed by that dude in your MFA.
posted by Ashen at 7:03 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


I like reading at cafes and bars, and people are not shy about asking what the book is if they can't see the cover.

Indeed, I've had some lively and interesting discussions with total strangers (and newly made friends) in this way. Though it's always a delicate balance between someone who wants to talk about the book they are reading and those who want to be left alone. You can usually tell based on how short their initial response to your first inquiry is.
posted by Fizz at 7:04 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Everyone reads on their phone or tablet now so you can't tell what they're reading.
posted by octothorpe at 7:07 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are YOU that guy?

It is a truism that, if you are in a cafe and can't spot the pretentious idiot, then you are almost certainly the pretentious idiot.

Unless, possibly, the pretentious idiots have been driven from the cafe by the proliferation of strollers and dogs. And dogs in strollers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:08 AM on September 23, 2015 [12 favorites]


VERY CONSPICUOUSLY holding up Remembrance Of Things Past by Proust in such a way that nobody who walked by could fail to see that he was reading it.

This is a very bad thing to do, because, if it's one of the single-volume editions, you risk serious bicep and shoulder damage.

One of the tragedies of e-readers is that you can't surreptitiously scope out anyone's reading anymore. It's like everything is in a plain brown wrapper.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:10 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Most of the coffee shops in my neighbourhood seem to try their best to drive out everyone who is not in line by playing music loud enough to discourage reading, writing, conversation and/or any other form of loitering. One of them used to play a lot of Metallica in the morning.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:13 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


One of the biggest things that struck me when I moved to America, and especially in Berkeley where I was living, was how many people went to cafes to work on their own and to mooch off the wifi. Walking into a place and finding all the seats occupied with people with laptops and headphones on was really eerie.

My (horrible) boss had a Francophile thing going on and loved some place on Euclid near the north gate on Hearst. "Isn't this wonderful? Isn't it just like being in Paris?". No it's not horrible boss, in Paris people go to cafes in groups and talk.
posted by kersplunk at 7:17 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Are YOU that guy?

"If you’ve been in a poker game café 30 minutes and don’t know who the patsy young guy in the front window of Toronto's Tequila Bookworm a) wearing a beret, b) with an open laptop on the table in front of him and c) VERY CONSPICUOUSLY holding up Remembrance Of Things Past by Proust in such a way that nobody who walked by could fail to see that he was reading it is, you’re the patsy young guy in the front window of Toronto's Tequila Bookworm a) wearing a beret, b) with an open laptop on the table in front of him and c) VERY CONSPICUOUSLY holding up Remembrance Of Things Past by Proust in such a way that nobody who walked by could fail to see that he was reading it.'”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:19 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Are YOU that guy?

Moi?
posted by Wolfdog at 7:23 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


If I'm reading in public, I don't want to talk to anyone. Exceptions are if you're a waiter bringing me food, in which case I will be courteous, or if you're attractive and want to make out with me, in which case I'll be downright charming. Otherwise, nix.

And for literary exhibitionists, there's probably a market for e-readers with a secondary screen on the back that displays the title of the book being read, and a further market for software hacks that will display À la recherche du temps perdu or Moby Dick while you're actually reading Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:26 AM on September 23, 2015 [14 favorites]


I drink everything really, really fast and would feel bad about just sitting there with an empty cup taking up real estate.

I genuinely wonder if I wanted to be 'that guy at Starbucks' what it means, coffee wise. Is it 2 cups? 8? Do I have to get food? Won't my mocha get cold if I nurse it? Do I use the same cup for refills? Do I have to make small talk with the barista every time I get a refill? What do I do when I need to pee, take my iPad with me?
posted by remlapm at 7:27 AM on September 23, 2015


One of the tragedies of e-readers is that you can't surreptitiously scope out anyone's reading anymore. It's like everything is in a plain brown wrapper.

If someone is holding/reading a physical (dead tree) book its pretty easy to tell what they're doing but with the tablet its a bit more difficult to determine. You can still attempt the: "What are you reading?" line to strike up a conversation. The only problem is it is hard to know if someone is reading or browsing or tweeting or any other number of things they could be doing on their device.
posted by Fizz at 7:27 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the biggest things that struck me when I moved to America, and especially in Berkeley where I was living, was how many people went to cafes to work on their own and to mooch off the wifi. Walking into a place and finding all the seats occupied with people with laptops and headphones on was really eerie.

And I can tell you as a former coffee shop employee, it is irritating as hell to have people park on four tops with their laptop and gear for three plus hours, using a $2 cup of coffee as a reason to do so. An hour is fine, but when you don't buy anything else and customers who do want to sit and read and chat with their friends in our cafe can't find seating and go somewhere else? You're not helping the business like you think you are.
posted by Kitteh at 7:29 AM on September 23, 2015 [10 favorites]


Do I have to get food? Won't my mocha get cold if I nurse it? Do I use the same cup for refills? Do I have to make small talk with the barista every time I get a refill?

I often end up at Starbucks when I just want to sit with a book and a cup of coffee. I'm not wanting to schill for Starbucks but if you use one of their Starbuck rewards card or whatever the hell its called and/or purchase using their app, their basic cup of coffee comes with free refills.

Sadly, most people are unaware of this perk as they tend to purchase their more popular pumpkin spice latte double mocha whatever.
posted by Fizz at 7:33 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


> One of the biggest things that struck me when I moved to America, and especially in Berkeley where I was living, was how many people went to cafes to work on their own and to mooch off the wifi

Free wifi is probably the main reason public libraries still exist. You don't even have to buy a coffee!
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:33 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Free wifi is probably the main reason public libraries still exist. You don't even have to buy a coffee!

While this is true, a lot of folks won't take advantage of this because homeless people also go to the library to get off the street for a bit. That bums me out like you wouldn't believe. (The people who won't go because of that not the homeless folks.)
posted by Kitteh at 7:35 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


it is irritating as hell to have people park on four tops with their laptop and gear for three plus hours, using a $2 cup of coffee as a reason to do so.

If I'm going to read a book for more than an hour or two, I try to have a muffin or a cookie or something along with it to justify my being there for such a lengthy period of time. It feels only fair since I am taking advantage of other services.
posted by Fizz at 7:39 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think we didn't mind the book-reading folks so much as they were generally friendlier and not taking up a four top to read. I try to find a cafe with comfy single seating when I want to get out of the house to read for a bit. I will sit at a two top but only if there is no other option.
posted by Kitteh at 7:42 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's not really sad that people with disposable income to buy PSL after PSL are subsidizing the Starbucks experience for others. I'm in Colorado and we have about one indie coffee shop for every 5 Starbucks in certain areas (downtown Denver, Golden, Boulder, the good old school cities with downtowns that any visitor should spend time exploring).

Indie shops are liable to have a bottomless cup and are usually encouraging of people who hang around, but there's a reason they have pastries and panini press, etc and the answer is to eat their food and just have a reasonable experience subsisting on their offerings while drinking a ton of affordable drip coffee and tipping 20 percent on everything. Maybe throw in a buck every 2-3 free refill too.
posted by aydeejones at 7:42 AM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


I will admit that as a family of four we drop 30 bucks at Starbucks every so often for breakfast and you do kind of feel like you're pushing it with all of the laptop laborers if your kids get chatty. But holy shit do I dislIke self important people who use their outside voice to talk on their cell phones about their dealings.

Back to blowing money at Starbucks. This may happen more often than going out for breakfast properly which is rare now that I'm working from home and don't see cooking as an existential shot across the bow of a dreary overworked existence.

It usually goes like this: someone gets a sausage sandwich, or the two menfolk do at least. It's a sausage McMuffin but without the fresh egg. Did you fucking know mcdonalds uses a fresh egg for McMuffins? You're welcome but Starbucks microwaved shit somehow is delicious too. Someone gets a blueberry scone. Those used to be bigger and triangular but they made them small and nicked about 15 percent of the mass and added blueberry flavoring. Assholes. But still good. Then someone gets the fruit and cheese box for five bucks. Seems kind of wasteful but a little brie and cheddar and apples and rustic seedy crackers and dried cranberries and almonds are good. Maybe two of those. Kids gotta have hot cocoa. I always get a venti drip of pIke place roast. America.
posted by aydeejones at 7:53 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I get very curious when I see people reading books in public. I kinda wish all people held their books in such a way that I could see the title and author. Where's our surveillance society when we need it, huh?

With properly positioned camera's, you can read the full text of patron's books.
posted by NSA at 8:10 AM on September 23, 2015 [9 favorites]


I'm in Colorado and we have about one indie coffee shop for every 5 Starbucks in certain areas (downtown Denver, Golden, Boulder, the good old school cities with downtowns that any visitor should spend time exploring).

I s'pose on raw numbers this might be true in Boulder, since there's a Starbucks in like every grocery store, but we do have: The Trident, Jet's Espressoria, the Laughing Goat, the Cup, Buchanan's, that poetry bookstore place on the Hill, that other place that used to be Cafe Roma or whatever, the tea place on 30th, a couple of Ozos, a couple of Amantes, Tod's and Page Two out in Gunbarrel, Caffe Sole down south, and I feel like I'm probably forgetting 5 or 6 others at least...
posted by brennen at 8:12 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Everyone reads on their phone or tablet now so you can't tell what they're reading.

Maybe not! -- "The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead"
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:14 AM on September 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


In Edmonton we have a sort-of-chain of coffee shops called Remedy. It started out as a cafe/bar by the University that was very much that place, to go read & write & be seen doing so. I hung out there a lot with all of my friends because, well you know. It was like they furnished their cafe with your parents rec room, the seating was battered old wingback chairs and couches. Also they served good Indian food. Anyways they have since expanded to several other locations around the city, but in the process they have converted to proper tables and fancier coffee and generally shed the "How do you make any money doing this?" vibe. (They have kept the culture of delightful graffiti all over the bathrooms, which I like).

Also, the one time someone tried the "Oh hey, what are you reading?" line on me was in Remedy, except I was reading a book on statistical mechanics and it was sort of heart breaking to see him try and spin that into a conversation starter.
posted by selenized at 8:19 AM on September 23, 2015 [12 favorites]


...VERY CONSPICUOUSLY holding up Remembrance Of Things Past by Proust...

Wasn't me. I was conspicuously reading Structural Stability and Morphogenesis.

Didn't get laid.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:26 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


From the article that Celsius1414 linked:
some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper.
This is something I see a lot of at coffee houses I frequent. People who are juggling a number of devices: using books, tablets, eReaders, and laptops.
posted by Fizz at 8:26 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was reading a book on statistical mechanics and it was sort of heart breaking to see him try and spin that into a conversation starter.

So.....I like numbers too. Do you like numbers? What's your number?

I would never do this but I can only imagine how terrible this would play out.
posted by Fizz at 8:27 AM on September 23, 2015 [9 favorites]


So.....I like numbers too. Do you like numbers? What's your number?

He went with something like "Wow math, that looks hard, I am not good at math" which, I still don't know how to respond to that? Well I am, good at math, so sucks to be you buddy? It was super awkward.
posted by selenized at 8:36 AM on September 23, 2015 [15 favorites]


People who hit on me while I'm reading tend to be disappointed.

Because, you know, I'll take the sex and all, but I'm not going to stop reading during it.
posted by kyrademon at 9:11 AM on September 23, 2015 [24 favorites]


I'll take the sex and all, but I'm not going to stop reading during it.

I swear I read a Dan Savage column where that was exactly this one dude's fetish.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:22 AM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


He went with something like "Wow math, that looks hard, I am not good at math" which, I still don't know how to respond to that? Well I am, good at math, so sucks to be you buddy? It was super awkward.

My first thought was, statistical mechanics - a lot of it is just fancypants thermodynamics: heat, pressure, entropy - if you can't get an opener out of that, you don't deserve to be hitting on people.

Then I realized why I was mostly single as an undergraduate.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:26 AM on September 23, 2015 [11 favorites]


So.....I like numbers too. Do you like numbers? What's your number?

That is a great pick-up line.
posted by saul wright at 9:29 AM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


"THE WHOLE POINT OF THE BOOK I'M READING IS I DON'T HAVE A NUMBER. I HAVE A GAUSSIAN DISTRIBUTION."
posted by Wolfdog at 9:34 AM on September 23, 2015 [18 favorites]


"Oh... is that normal?"
posted by Wolfdog at 9:36 AM on September 23, 2015 [16 favorites]


See, there are great conversations to be had there.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:37 AM on September 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


"THE WHOLE POINT OF THE BOOK I'M READING IS I DON'T HAVE A NUMBER. I HAVE A GAUSSIAN DISTRIBUTION."

Have you tried probiotics? Mine cleared right up.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:37 AM on September 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


The cafe paradox: If I'm not reading, it's because I want to talk to people, but everyone ignores me. If I AM reading, it's because I DON'T want to talk to people, and EVERY DAMN PERSON IN THE CAFE WANTS TO CHAT ABOUT MY DAMN BOOK.
posted by Krawczak at 9:48 AM on September 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


My first thought was, statistical mechanics - a lot of it is just fancypants thermodynamics: heat, pressure, entropy - if you can't get an opener out of that, you don't deserve to be hitting on people.

Reminds me of that scene from Heat where Neal is reading a book on metal stress points and is all rude about being interrupted.
posted by Fizz at 10:08 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I personally like the anonymity of Kindles, though my younger years had moments of struggling to hold Proust upright and hoping the cute boy or girl, also wearing a beret, would come over and say "You're smart, aren't you? Let's fuck." At least I made some good friends with my very public literary choices.

Anyways, I'm surprised Amazon (or Kobo, or B&N) hasn't tried to tap the literary vanity market. An ereader with 2 screens, the one on the back displaying the cover of your current book. Though, a smartly designed device would have an option to display any book cover you want. That way you can be thoughtfully perusing "Gangbang on the Lost Planet of Gay Raptors" and have the austere cover of Borges's Collected Fictions misleading any potential new friends / lovers.
posted by honestcoyote at 10:35 AM on September 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've tried the write-in-a-cafe thing a few times. Easily about 75% of the time I end up just answering email instead and have to go home to get actual work done. I usually have always gotten straight-up food as well as coffee, though - especially if it's the magic bar/cafe on my corner that I lovelovelove. (One time, during an especially thorny day, I even got the "burger and beer" lunch special.)

As to the "horsewater liquor" quality of coffee comment: I'm reminded of a boss I had who once told me that his 14-year-old daughter had been pestering him to be allowed to try coffee, and he grumbled to me that he was going to make her a deal that her first coffee had to be at a Greek diner rather than getting a PSL or something. "That's not coffee," he sneered. "that's got way too much sugar and cream and shit. If she can handle the crap you get at a diner, then she'll be ready for coffee."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


> that other place that used to be Cafe Roma

man I am SO PISSED about Cafe Roma closing / selling out. That was simultaneously the ONLY place I could happily read undisturbed because I'm not young and cute enough for the majority demographic AND my one reliable "in" for the local alt-indie-electronic underground scene.

dammit, why'd you have to bring that up. Now I merely huddle in the back corner of the Ozo roastery out on Central reading on my phone at odd hours and hoping the loud obnoxious venture capital crew doesn't spontaneously show up.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:41 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


oh and the Laughing Goat out on East Pearl / 55th would probably be ideal... sadly they share a communal space with a tire shop and all the migraine-inducing rubber stench that entails.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:43 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


There seems some confusion here between coffee houses and cafes, writing in them or being seen reading in them (the comments). In the 18th century, coffee houses were to be found in abundance in London, and were for men and not women, though talk and companionship seemed more important than writing. See HERE for a nice discussion of 18th century coffee houses.
posted by Postroad at 10:48 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: I've tried the write-in-a-cafe thing a few times. Easily about 75% of the time I end up just answering email instead and have to go home to get actual work done.

I've only ever been able to write in cafés with pen and paper. Like Wurgaft talks about, it's good for me to push against the constant noise of cafés, but once I have the added distraction of a computer or an iPad, all hope is lost. Maybe not all hope, but most hope.
posted by Kattullus at 10:52 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


From my own experience, I've found being in a cafe has zero effect on my writing productivity or quality. That is to say, my writing is as poor and meager in public as it is at home. I just go there to be around people while not being obliged to interact with them.
posted by zchyrs at 11:38 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


've tried the write-in-a-cafe thing a few times. Easily about 75% of the time I end up just answering email instead and have to go home to get actual work done.

*ahem*
posted by Fizz at 12:17 PM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I was getting all of my reading material from a university library, the generic covers they put on their rebound paperbacks doomed any attempts to show off my cultural literacy.
posted by enjoymoreradio at 12:43 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are rebound paperbacks the books you read after you've just broken up with another book?
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:52 PM on September 23, 2015 [14 favorites]


I was reading this two weeks ago in a cafe and the young man who bought my coffee was overcome with joy at the cover. After I'd finished it, I gave it to him, now were cafe-pals!
posted by Gin and Broadband at 2:00 PM on September 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


When I was a professional coffee slinger, we had a regular who would come in every morning, with actual books and actual fountain pens, and read and write for the better part of the day. He was a character and a friend of the shop, and held conversation with other patrons as well as our staff when he didn't have headphones on to concentrate.

I don't think he did it to be seen as much as he enjoyed the atmosphere, and after that shop closed he came along to a roastery nearby, where I also worked. That place had a lot more undergrad table-campers and it wasn't as spacious, so we didn't see him as much. I've lost touch with him but I imagine he's out there somewhere, with ink-stained fingertips and old jeans (shop rag hanging out the back for polishing his shaved head), drinking black coffee 1/2 cup at a time.
posted by a halcyon day at 2:27 PM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


London coffee houses were originally started by men from Dubrovnik (then called Ragusa ) and these coffee houses had different political affiliations. One did not go into the 'wrong' coffee house without expecting an argument. People read newspapers and magazines and talked politics.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:29 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think it's all about light, steam, and proximity to information.

And doilies.
posted by clavdivs at 10:36 PM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


London coffee houses were originally started by men from Dubrovnik

I have no idea if this is true or not, but I just visited Dubrovnik, and would really like it to be true, so I'm not googling.
posted by brennen at 12:38 AM on September 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


No mention of San Francisco cafes (I see a mention of Pizzaiolo in Oakland), but it strikes me that that may be because SF isn't really a cafe city the way it was when I lived there. Which is sad and unfortunate.
posted by blucevalo at 8:22 AM on September 24, 2015




Free wifi is probably the main reason public libraries still exist. You don't even have to buy a coffee!

While this is true, a lot of folks won't take advantage of this because homeless people also go to the library to get off the street for a bit.


I work at the library sometimes when I need a change of scenery but mostly I don't like to do it because they don't have coffee.
posted by phearlez at 12:18 PM on September 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


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