WORDS: S. Lynch.
I don't like to generalize, it's boring. But to make sense of the intense amount of of information bombarding us 24 hours a day, sometimes it seems necessary. There's little space in a quickening culture to think about the nuances of anything anymore. All but the most important of concepts. Time. Money. Facebook popularity. Which is perhaps why serving coffee is so rewarding sometimes. It's all about the details and minor flourishes, the ones that cause a person to engage with you in a tiny way. Things which become more frequent the better you know the person you're making the drink for. The every-day regulars, whose orders rarely alter, and whose authentic geniality brings great satisfaction.
But when you consider how complex most persons day-to-day lives are, believing that knowledge of a person's preferred drink is tantamount to "knowing" is absurd. And it would be optimistic to believe asking about their new job makes you more than just transactional acquaintances. Optimistic and perhaps a little needy.
But we enjoy it, on both sides, customer and barista- those glimmers of real human interaction are the brightly coloured walls that protect us from the grey onslaught of self-service checkouts and scripted retail responses. Those Topshop smiles which make the pretty meet and greet girl by the door a horribly obvious object of manipulation. Therefore these little assumptions are necessary, otherwise we'd erase all possibility of genuine interaction on the grounds that we really don't know these regulars at all.
So to make a sweeping judgement so broad it would even impress the Daily Mail readers, it appears to me that there are only two kinds of coffee shop regular:
The 'business' and the 'leisure' (like there's only two reasons to travel abroad according to customs and border control.)
Doing a quick headcount I see 27 customers ( it's a quiet patch, typical mid afternoon.) Only 6 appear to be here ostensibly for leisure reasons; the 4 older ladies that gather here on a monthly basis to complain about the volume of the music and everything other minor thing that embitters their privileged lives. And the husband and wife duo who came to read the papers with 8 ounces of espresso and milk. The 21 others are doggedly tapping at MacBooks and laptops (except for one that has a notepad and pen. And tortoiseshell glasses.)
These are assumptions of course, the elderly ladies could in fact be the senior editors for MOJO and Q magazine, comparing notes on Mogwai's latest release. The husband and wife might be married to other people, hiding extremely well a torrid but painfully unsatisfying affair, which in a town as small as Cambridge can only be lived out by silently pretending to ignore each other with broadsheet crosswords.
And those with Laptops might just be perusing a self-help slideshow of 23 ways you can use your time to make lists of lists more efficiently.
So why are the majority of patrons here to work? On the face of it, it's fairly obvious. This is a small rural town, if you're not in a workplace during the middle of a week-day, you're either retired, a full time student , a new mum or unemployed. Monmouth in London proudly do not allow the use of electronic devices or internet, they are short on space, so you go to drink their beverages and make conversation with the person invading your personal space. A nice idea, which works beautifully If you're in London, a place which for sheer population density is crammed full of people who do not fit into the broad strokes I just outlined. By comparison Cambridge is tiny and it's population not big enough to fill a coffee shop on a daily basis purely for social reasons.
So maybe this shift in perceived coffee-house 'usage' can be attributed to the invention of wire-less technology? And maybe the success and proliferation of such places has been dependent on the increase in creative and tech-sector professions? Those professions that don't require people to be sat in beige cubicles with the synthetic heat of photocopiers, the dry heat which leaves you with a thick headache and oddly cold. It's understandable that those who can work outside of the dry office will do so.
But home provides far too many distractions and Libraries are less likely to tolerate the Boot's meal deal you're enthusiastically dismantling whilst listening to treble-heavy trance music on your Nokia.
Coffee shops are ideal. They provide the comforts. There's music, art on the walls, other friendly people, hot food, caffeine that tastes great, and still with the need for some social etiquette and constraint. (If you order a macchiato in your underpants chances are I will ask you to leave. And not just because you still haven't grasped our menu system.)
Or it could be that will still need a setting, the walk to your favourite coffee shop might be the ideal ritual to switch your brain to work mode. And to be in a place full of other people working is surely more conducive to getting work done yourself, if only out of guilt?
But there has to be balance, like all things. There are two sides to every quarrel and I happen to sit in both camps, I work in a coffee-shop and I work at coffee-shops. I know the tribulations that both parties face. It's not just an independent coffee shop trying to stay afloat in a difficult economy that is displeased by the amount of table taken up by a MacBook pro that orders one flat white every four hours. As the latest review of Hot Numbers can attest, MacBook Congestion is off-putting to the leisure drinkers. Buildings weren't designed with ledges for pigeons to sit on and pigeons evolved to perch on rock faces, not above office windows. But the two have met by happenstance and you can either put up wire spikes or face a very dire hygiene problem.
You may have noticed the introduction of the hourly code system to our internet usage. We could have banned laptops at certain peak times or removed the wi-fi altogether but we'd run the risk of alienating some our favourite customers. We get a very interesting group of professionals gracing the shop, authors, scientists, mathematicians, glaciologists and playwrights. If i could I'd sit down and ask each one of them about what they're working on but perhaps that would be crossing a sacred divide. These regulars know how to behave, they enjoy the drinks, talk to us like human beings and don't mind the gentle reminder to buy another drink every time the connection drops out.
But not everybody understands it, it angers some that in the modern day and age they can't send an attachment to Gary in HR without being expected to make a purchase. So If you want to find yourself paying for the most expensive drink on the menu then I would suggest that before you even bother to say hello, make your first utterance at the counter: "Do you have wi-fi here?"
We do have Wi-fi. But call BT and enquire about their free home installation and you'd never have to ask me that question again. It's provided as a convenience, an embellishment to an atmosphere and ethos. Ten years ago wireless internet was not a thing. Now it seems some people view it as a basic human right. Figure in the cost of electricity, internet bandwidth, refilled glasses of water and loss of potential orders from those people who are unable to find a seat and suddenly you're running less of a business and more of a community centre for office-orphans. Yet, try and apply for lottery funding and you'll be laughed at.
TLDR? Next blog will be more coffee focused. Promise.