The last 20 years have seen an uninterrupted boom in the opening of cafes and coffee houses across the United States, specializing in quality coffees, baked goods and a warm, thoughtful atmosphere. They have often been portrayed as bastions of liberalism unwelcoming of other views, but in fact, the cafe culture tends to be warm, welcoming and conducive to the expression of diverse viewpoints. In this way, coffee culture is less about liberal politics than the elevation of the independent thinker.
The stereotypes are so deep-rooted that in response to the conservative Tea Party movement, a group of progressive activists have formed a rival ‘Coffee Party’ movement, which seeks to bring people together online and at actual coffee parties to discuss politics and policy. But the real gist of that movement is the idea that grassroots movements should not be exclusive of so many reasonable points of view; they should not seek ideological purity but rather embrace diversity.
The coffee house itself —the place where people go to find a home away from home or a workplace away from work, while enjoying rich flavors, an infusion of energy and good company— is in many ways an environment that fosters civility and openness to the views of others. This is one of the types of places that everyday people go every day, to be who they are and enjoy the company of their fellow citizens.
Some have argued the recent resurgence of the cafe culture mirrors that kind of garrulous, intellectual hotbed environment that existed in various forms in 18th, 19th and early 20th century Europe: a place for new ideas to spring up, for creative types to meet the more straight-laced, and for fashion and function to find connections in the interactions between people. But there is something uniquely American about the recent cultural shift implied by the emergence of these coffee houses: nothing is imposed; people are not culturally relevant or not relevant; if there is a microcosm, there can exist competing microcosms, overlapping and interacting with, feeding back into the original group. Ideas are not suppressed, but are invited.
Over time, as relationships develop, people begin to see a trip to the cafe as a necessary infusion of community engagement into their everyday lives. People who interact openly with people reason more and reason better; people who disengage and seek to judge what others are doing and thinking tend to be blinded to the more humane undercurrents in the motivations of others. Independence of mind can blend constructively with an infusion of community and the search for mutual comprehension.
A decidedly anti-populist sentiment in certain segments of the media has sought to paint the coffee house culture as somehow foreign to Main Street, USA, despite the phenomenon of its penetration into precisely the culture of Main Street, USA, and the degree to which the culture of Main Street, USA, has energized the coffee house boom. The fact is: coffee house culture is part of what middle class culture in the United States is about: people of conscience joining together to encourage independent thinking and to cultivate and reward inventive pursuits, or just living and letting be and respecting the right of others to a dignified space of personal inner fulfillment.
The rise of the coffee house culture is in some ways a parallel to the transition from industrial middle class culture to information-based middle class culture. The information age has changed the calculus for middle class America, with many communities unable to make the transition easily and a raft of government policies moving influence away from communities, families and individuals.
The securing of a “third place”, in the words of Howard Schultz, is a bid for independence of the self within a more liquid and imposing world of change and competition. Cafes in today’s American landscape are more than a place where people know each other, or where one can enjoy a quiet break or a nice cup of espresso; they’re part of what allows us time to breathe and to relate to the world through information, and they’re a personal and a creative space. The value of this cannot be discounted.
People need both rich personal lives and the opportunity to create. Our minds are built to give both of these the most significant energy, after survival is assured, and so the relentless push of contemporary society, the demand that we be elsewhere, and elsewhere, and elsewhere, makes it useful to have a place where presence can happen, where we can be present, and whole and at ease.
The appeal of this can be seen in the diversity of the clientele that frequent successful local cafes: older people with a desire to connect with the world, younger people with a desire to learn about the world, artists and students, professors and professionals, people who work with their hands or are looking for work. They’re a good place to be and a good way to find rhythms that make sense, and so people keep coming back, to find those things and give order to the chaotic pace of their lives. This is an everyday pursuit, a way to gather reason and community and comfort and enjoyment to one’s habits, to one’s schedule, to the calendar that would otherwise be the dominant spiritual factor in so many people’s lives.
What the cafe culture shows us is that we need places where we can be ourselves, participate in the life of our society and also be free of the power of big institutions, at least for a moment. There is something basically liberating about this, and for many people, the resulting self-awareness, the resulting sense of balance and optimism, is worth devoting time to.
We need places where people come together, where the idea of what is possible is also an idea of who we are, and none of it is very far out of reach. We need places where people can think creatively about their lives, because they are freed of the rigors of work or school or faith tradition, freed to just ponder in the best of themselves and see how and where they can move forward.
Coffee houses are local businesses that have a stake in the success of their communities, and so they often coincide with a surge in the wellbeing and dynamism of communities: they bring people together, make for connections and for the invention of new projects, and they flourish when people around them flourish. It’s a different standard to what happens in people’s relationship with big, faceless institutions more interested in putting their stamp on us than allowing us to put our stamp on them.
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Originally published February 24, 2011, at IndependentsOfPrinciple.com