Is café culture on the ropes?
Café culture, traditionally an intellectual and political hotbed, is under threat by a force that threatens to kill the ambience of relaxation and free conversation carefully cultivated by independents and chains alike.
The spoilers are flocks of 21st century solo café habitués who see themselves as the creatives in the corner, the J.P. Rowling writing million-pound best sellers over a series of long teas in an Edinburgh café, the subtle scribblers of thoughts -- or maybe just escapees from office confines -- who tote not a pen and notebook but a glowing, humming laptop computer.
‘It’s the same tradition but I use a computer. I come here and work just like the intellectuals of the old school,' one man told me in Cambridge’s delightful Indy caff, Indigo in St.Edmund’s Passage, off King’s Parade. 'I am writing my PhD. In here. It’s just like penning a novel in the old days.'
But is it?
Or have the rows of computer screens a deadening effect on the atmosphere in the café - as the author Jonathan Franzen asserts, become 'a killer component of any setting'?
Andrew Tuck, founding editor of one of the world’s most stylish magazines, Monocle, and a man who should know a thing of two about living the good life, seems to take that view. In a recent essay he ripped into the new phenomenon of the internet café worker, claiming that the blue glare of the opened screens are a real downer, a depressing metamorphosis that transforms the convivial café camaraderie into an individualized extension of the workspace.
Yet writer and academic, Sharon Larson in a discussion of the phenomenon is emphatic about the pluses of working computer user in cafés, 'At a cafe, you are paying for the relaxing space, away from home and office clutter, away from at-home or at-work distractions, which can result in very productive environment in which to do work. Since this may be true of other people in the cafe as well, you are likely to be surrounded by diligent workers, which can reinforce productivity habits.'
Sounds very like an office away from the office. And what of the other café users, who don’t come to work and have no interest in ‘reinforcing their productivity habits‘ alongside other silent users?
Abigail Dryden, a senior editor, has her own views. 'These users sit for hours next to an empty cup of coffee, tapping away without any contact with other customers,' she said. 'Some even take calls and run their own businesses from a café table – saving on their own fuel bills but punctuating the air with chatter about work deals. It‘s hideous.'
Even proponent Larson reflects with some nostalgia on the origins of cafés to reflect how far they’ve changed. 'Cafes were a space where thinkers (i.e., people with enough excess wealth to be able to afford to spend all day drinking coffee as opposed to working) could gather to discuss philosophy, politics, sociology, or whatever other ideas might be in vogue. The caffeine stimulated discussion.'
For centuries since cafes and coffee houses were ‘invented’ in the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment, they have thrived as centres for conversation, collaboration – and often in turbulent times, revolution. The thinkers and writers and dreamers of Regency London were satirists like Jonathan Swift or cartoonists like James Gilray getting together with fellow artists and pamphleteers to attack the Government and monarchy. In Paris the French Revolution was sparked in cafés – Robespierre had his favourite haunts - and the tradition continued there at the heart of culture and conviviality. The existentialist writers of the twentieth century like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus made cafés like Les Deux Magots famous.
What would they have made of the heads-down eerily illuminated rows of absorbed typists in the place like the back of Caffé Nero in King’s Parade in Cambridge? No one speak to anyone else. Everyone is entirely self-absorbed. The barista there is sad but resigned about the gloomy customers. 'Yes it looks a bit miserable but people like it.'
But what about safety measures? Does he fear accidents arising from the mix of hot drinks and high-tech machines? 'It’s their risk. We don’t like it much but it’s their choice – at the moment.'
Back at Indigo, described as 'an alternative beacon for anyone with any qualms about the tax-dodging tactics of the big brands,' their charming proprietress sighs when computers are mentioned. 'It is a problem. Especially at lunchtime when the tables are crowded and they’re in high demand. I asked one man to kindly move to make way for a party of people wanting to sit down for their food and he actually hit me. It’s quite a topic, it really isn’t fair in a place as tiny as ours.'
And in America, where all this began the enthusiasm for computer working in cafés is on the wane. Some have simply switched off their wi-fi and made a virtue of a technology-free environment. First Bakery in Burlington, Vermont, was one of the first. The owner, Jodi Whalen, described how some people were coming in for their coffee in the morning and sitting in the café using the wi-fi all day.
'We saw a lot of customers come in and look for a table, not be able to find one and leave so it was a lot of money flowing out the door for us,' she said. 'To walk into a place and see people looking at their screens with a blank stare…it takes away the community aspect of it – of you being in a place with other people.' Sales have increased since the ban.
When the love affair with computers begins to turn sour, when the perception of a laptop changes from fascination to exasperation, then more cafés and elsewhere will switch off a free service that is losing them money and damaging the feeling of friendship and community that used to come with a café jaunt.
And to be honest, that day cannot come too soon for me. See you in the nearest computer free café, I shall be the one reading a newspaper.