Did you know that Fido [in Nashville's Hillsboro Village neighborhood] turns off its wireless internet if the cafe gets busy to get people to leave their tables? I told the manager that this does not seem to be in the spirit of Bongo Java and Fido. He said that this is a restaurant not an office. The wireless has been turned off and back on twice during the half-hour I've been here. Both times I lost data. Thanks a lot.
That post got me thinking.
There is a great coffee shop here in Memphis - Republic Coffee - I go there often to work (in fact, I am sitting in Republic as I type this). The internet is always on, and when it conks out I tell somebody and the staff apologizes and gets it up and running again.
As a result, I often sit for hours, which means I will likely eat a meal in addition to getting coffee, and sometimes a little nosh between meals as well. Because the staff is so cool about it, and because I feel very comfortable there, Kira and I often make a point to go there on days when I'm not writing, and grab a meal. I'm a good tipper anyway, but my tips are especially high at Republic.
In other words, because of their wireless policy, I have made it a habit both to work there and go out of my way to eat there. In addition, I feel strongly enough about their wireless policy to take up four or five minutes to write a comment in here about it.
I am thinking about these things because I see a stark contrast between the approach Republic is taking to the approach Fido is taking, and it is worth lingering over this difference for a moment or two.
I love taxonomy and definitions, and I think this is an interesting taxonomic problem. Despite the manager's adamant stance, I think he is committing a categorical error.
(First off, let me say that I will avoid the term "cafe" here, since in American culture that is a "gray area" term - it used to mean "coffee house," but now often means informal restaurant where light fare is served quickly, So, in what follows, the polarity is between "restaurant" and "coffee house" - adamantly)
If you serve an espresso at the end of a meal, with dessert, you're a restaurant. If you put coffee drinks at the end of a menu (and they are listed simply "coffee," "cappuccino," "espresso," etc.) , with the desserts, you're a restaurant.
If you put coffee drinks at the front of the menu, with a range of sizes for each, chances are you're a coffee house. If you have more varieties of coffee drinks offered than you have, say, varieties of sandwiches, chances are pretty good you're a coffee house.
A "coffee house" entails coffee house culture - which is a culture of lingering. This is a certain type of lingering, which leads to conversations, creativity, and thought (all of which are goods in themselves, and need no economic justification for their encouragement and flourishing). This type of lingering should not be confused with other types of lingering that are malicious in nature, such as loitering or lurking.
I will agree with the manager that Fido isn't an office, true. But I want to argue that Fido also isn't a restaurant. It is a coffee house, just like Republic Coffee (and my beloved San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company in Atlanta) are coffee houses. It is a third space: not an office, not a restaurant. And that third space is both necessary and important.
When I want to write, I don't go to write in a restaurant, because a restaurant does not convey or foster an atmosphere of lingering or creativity, even though a restaurant will serve me coffee (and, incidentally, I can also get coffee at my office). I write where the vibe is best for writing.
So, I will argue, a coffee house is not about the coffee, at the end of the day. It is about the type of atmosphere and interaction I can expect -- with other patrons and with staff -- when I go there. Furthermore, I don't feel I need to "justify" this expectation in economic terms, even though (as I pointed out above), it certainly seems to me that there is tremendous economic benefit to a coffee house from folks like me, since we tend to attract other folks of like mind (that's the point) to be around us, because that helps us do creative work. Fostering such an atmosphere is beneficial to the establishment itself, of course, because even though the crowd may be there for the atmosphere, as a byproduct we tend to eat and drink and tip.
Why go on about this? Because it matters - at least to me (and, I hope, to folks like me). There is so much pressure to justify the cash value of everything these days, which makes me distracted and sad.
I look at my lovely baby daughter -- no cash value, just unqualified good in her own right. Poetry? No cash value, but unqualified good, nonetheless. I don't want to live in a world where everything has a price, and whose price has been calculated and fractured over time increments.
So I am thankful for little pockets of culture (particularly coffee house culture) that still remain, because these, too, are unqualified goods in themselves. A place to sit, and think, and write, is too rare in the wasteland of strip malls and parking lots that America has become not to spend a few minutes writing praise when we find them.
So I say "amen" to coffee houses, which are neither restaurants nor offices, and I say "shame" to Fido, a sad, confused establishment that yearns to be something it is not, to the detriment of Hillsboro Village, to the detriment of us all.
What do you think?