It's not just about the coffee...
When it comes to living on a budget, an obvious indulgence to trim is coffeeshop visits. At nearly $3.00 a cup each day, the habit adds up to $1,080/year. I could put that same money into a mutual fund and watch it roughly double every seven years. Pragmatically-speaking, going out for coffee is a huge waste of money.
That’s when I realize that going out for coffee is not just about the coffee.
I’ve spent most my life in café-saturated towns and have always taken them for granted. But now, living without a coffeeshop in rural Applegate*, I can see clearly the role they have played in my life. For one thing, I've accomplished a lot at café tables: essays, art projects, business plans. I found the bustle helpful—due to a phenomenon that my friend Caroline calls “parallel play”. Parallel Play simply means two or more people working on separate projects in proximity.
Writing guru, Natalie Goldberg, describes the benefits of parallel play well:
“The café atmosphere keeps that sensory part of you busy and happy, so that the deeper, quieter part of you that creates and concentrates is free to do so. It’s something like occupying a baby with tricks, while slipping a spoonful of applesauce in her mouth.” (Writing Down the Bones)
Beyond parallel play, coffeeshops provide community. My friend, Megan Fehrman, invokes the term “third places” to describe this function. "They are a place you go where you are not at work or at home. You go to see neighbors and friends,” she explains, “to bump into people, to exchange information. I consider them a fairly essential place for community interaction-- a 'hub' if you will.”
In my travels, I find this "third place" function crucial. As a stranger in a foreign land, cafes provide an accessible intimacy with a place without requiring an invite. At the Taste of Rome café in Sausalito, I absorbed the salty atmosphere of the docks by overhearing sea stories told by sailors. At Café Clock in Morocco, I became familiar with the spare notes of the oud and spicy joys of traditional harissa. In Kathmandu, I have peered down from the terrace of the Himalayan Bean and puzzled over of other lives as I watched the monks circle the stupa below.
Closer by: At The Book Passage in the Bay Area, I found myself fueled up on city-style ambition at their evening author events. And locally, I have spent much time at The Good Bean in Jacksonville mining for words amid those perfect vintage brick walls from the Gold Rush era. After repeated days in these spaces, you find a sense of home, even in a faraway land.
Coffeeshops also provide a forum for chance encounters and the exchange of ideas, the kind of collaborative cross-pollinations that push communities forward.
Case in point: in lieu of a coffeeshop, some friends and I have created a local remote work group. We take turns hosting and meet once a week. Already we have seen the mutual benefit. When Alex mentioned he was volunteering for a Los Angeles-based kelp farming project, Katrina tipped him off to a kelp processing company in nearby Cave Junction. Meanwhile, Caroline was drafting an ad for a property caretaker, and I was on hand to edit it. Toward the end of our meet-up, when I started to complain about my sore neck, Jeffrey mentioned how the Feldenkrais body he was studying could help. And so we leave our work gatherings not just buzzing from caffeine, but from ideas.
And last but not least: Cafes are good for showcasing local talent. They are a place for poetry readings and live music in the evening, monthly rotations of visual art on the walls. All the hard work that artists do in private has a chance to shine.
There is a reason why cafes have persisted since the Ottomon Empire, why they have proliferated across the sidewalks of Europe and across the Middle East and can an often be found even in the smallest of towns here in the U.S. They are an essential part of life. My friend Caroline sums it up well: “ Coffeeshops help keep a community alive and connected-- maybe even sane.”
Much stands in the way of an Applegate coffeeshop. There is limited commercial space and what there is is already claimed—even if it stands unused. Attaining more commercial space would require a change in zoning which feels complicated in light of state land use laws. But maybe it's time to reckon with the fact that people in rural areas are not just farming and ranching, but increasingly finding remote-work style employment that needs to be accommodated. The arrival of fast Starlink Internet is only going to accelerate this trend.
Sure, we could all save money and never go out for coffee. But we would be impoverished in another ways--poor in ideas and in social connections, deprived of the dividends of joy and inspiration that coffeeshops pay out.
After all, it was never just about the coffee!
I surveyed and heard back from over fifty people about what they want to see in a café. Here is what they said:
-A space that is lively enough to feel like a "hub" but quiet enough to actually get some work done or take a Zoom meeting.
-Fast, secured wifi
-lots of electrical outlets
-both chairs and couches
-newspapers and magazines
-really good black tea
-good conversations with interesting patrons
-A professional espresso machine with a barista who knows how to foam silky milk.
-A huge harvest table to gather next to a couple of more intimate gathering spaces.
-Local art on the walls.
-kick ass signature drink, like a cardomom cappuccino
-Curated Background music
-A space to spread out
-Strong coffee and getting the order right
-An aesthetic that feels chosen, as if whomever put it together was stoked to do so.
-Soundtrack combining the familiar with the novel.
-The ability to be there for hours. Comfy chairs, some real food to balance out the pastries, and high quality coffee. A decent bustle, but not a pile scene.
-The glorious smell of coffee
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