Exceeding the Brief
// Typing this up on the newest addition to the Hot Numbers interior: the acre of oak that forms the new communal table on Williams Art side- designed for sharing, for face to face interaction. Which admittedly during the working week is more face to screen or textbook interaction, but during the evenings and weekends it's communal quality shines.
Some might say it wouldn't look out of place in a slick city design studio, but it's function hails back to the original coffeehouse form, the long benches which propped caffeinated thinkers and spurious ravers in the 17th and 18th centuries. As likely to ponder the gaps in their teeth as much as the gaps in human knowledge. Conversation was always at the heart of coffee, and still is. It's the gathering of people, the coffee table became the campfire for a no-longer nomadic tribe.
Late last June a local paper sounded out complaints over noise (and smell) from the shop. This isn't a reply to it, nor do I wish to weigh in with counter-arguments. I have none. I don't have to live next door to Hot Numbers so I'm in no solid position to judge. Plus anything I might add would inevitably seem sycophantic, being a paid member of staff.
"Public Nuisance" (as Hot Numbers has been described in the past by at least 1 neighbour,) is however, a somewhat provocative term I'd probably reserve for exceptional cases. Perhaps if during the daily opening ritual, somewhere between checking the fridge temperatures and collecting bread, we were to spill the contents of a few Able&Cole veg box deliveries simultaneously blasting out a 7:15am performance of Ride of the Valkyries from a particularly treble-heavy set of speakers as we cycled back from Norfolk St. Bakery... then we might earn that title.
But the article did get us thinking a little about the coffee shop, how's its changed over the past months, years even. We do have more live music now, not just Fridays and Sundays. Earlier in spring local veteran of the Jazz scene Nick Hill kicked off his Jazz residency every Thursday.
So Thursday night on Mill Road now has a candle-lit, coffee-fed, spot-lit jazz lounge with a rotating line-up of impressive artists. It could almost be a horrible bohemian cliche if it wasn't so enjoyable. (Plus there aren't too many turtle-neck wearing finger clickers in the audience.)
It's True, as well as purveyors of speciality coffee, Hot Numbers has grown it's other interests. But the expansions have been natural, I think. The live jazz is fed by a demand for quality live music, Steak& Honour at the front door, local bacon, and bread, and cakes and the recent introduction of Inder's Kitchen platters all fed by a desire to collaborate with like-minded small businesses in Cambridge. The food, drink, live music- they all seem to fit together with this coffee industry.
Which is why, (after wading through the obvious punnery that seems to be a requirement for local newspapers), one complaint stood out in the CEN's article as particularly unusual: Hot Numbers has “now exceeded its brief.”
Maybe it's just the discomforting fear of change at the root of this particular complaint. Or, maybe its the result of a charmingly nostalgic concept of the local high street - An antiquated idea of what a 'Cafe' is and does, or a Dad's Army view of the neat little shopfronts. The bank, the green grocer, butcher, baker, cobbler and the candlestick maker. Each with their own purpose.
It might be nice if the streets were like that, if each business were thriving, and there is obvious movement back towards independents. But Supermarkets still exist. If we're complacent there will be another Sainsbury's on the Mickey Flynn's site before long. They might even serve coffee. Or would that be exceeding their brief?
I don't believe the complaints occurred out of malice, or because anybody wishes to see an independent fail, (I would shudder to think that "Better the Devil you know' were brought into play here.) But it's still exasperating. Especially when the introduction of Film Nights and a subsequent license change became the original catalyst for this latest round of digs. Maybe we are getting too big for our boots? Picking a film each month with some artistic merit and sharing it with our regulars whilst they drink our coffee could seem a little bit like we're trying to take over the world with our flagrant disregard for being quiet and sensible on a Monday evening.
(Though, in practice it seems if you really want to get a crowd of people in Cambridge to sit down and shut up for a couple of hours, and buy less, you just need a projector and a DVD that the BFI website wouldn't sniff at. Coffee shop cinemas are not exceptionally lucrative, but they are enriching. We hope.)
Like the audience attracted by the Jazz Nights, coffee has grown it's own culture, coffee shops attract a fairly wide spectrum of customers, but still the audience is curated by the atmosphere. Those who detest jazz tend not to stick around long at Hot Numbers. Particularly if we don't concede to their request of "changing the C.D." The speciality coffee industry attracts lifestyle lovers. Or conversely coffee has been driven to "speciality" status by those who tend to enjoy craft and quality. In the same way bottled beer has received it's own "Craft" status and consequent revival. The crossover between coffee and the world of design, art and fashion is wholly apparent, and necessary. It's the sign of a population exhausted by homogeny who are willing to spend more of their money on the simple pleasures of life, provided they're done well. Provided they are presented with the due care and respect.
There is an Alarm-clock that wakes you with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, T-shirts spreading the love of coffee in Poland (the latest up'n'coming coffee-shop scene), a Brooklyn coffee-shop that is also a museum of morbid anatomical curiosities. We even have whole evenings of Coffee appreciation that match wine tastings in the excitement they create. This is what coffee is now, it's a lifestyle and a signal to others that we care about what we're doing, we curate and discern and create. It's almost too obvious to state, given that it lies in plain sight, in the packaging that adorns the retail spaces and the slick photography led websites. The hand-rendered lettering sprawled across chalk boards and bare light bulbs that emit smug glows instead of illumination. All of these small decisions and details add up to the coffee-shop experience. Decisions made to ensure that all the senses, not just taste are satisfied.
These decisions are expressions of the people involved. To expect a coffee-shop to fit a singular brief would be the same as expecting it to serve coffee with a sickly smile and the cold efficiency of supermarket checkout. "Thanks for the cash, here's the coffee, sit down."
The point I'm flogging to death here is two-fold:
- A thriving industry is an industry run by people that care, perhaps a little too much, about the small things. (Caffeine does have that effect. The caffeinated thoughts of 17th century coffeehouses are thought to have played a key role in the enlightenment.)
- Those people probably care about other things, (not just coffee.) You can be more than one thing.
Blame it on a lack of worldy-wisdom but all of this realisation struck me as new. For far too long I have clung to the idea that you become the thing you work towards, you go to the law school to be a lawyer and the medical school to be a doctor, or you practice piano religiously to become a pianist. Too long clung to an idea that these professions hold no relation, the lines through which they run never entangle. I went to an art school to be an illustrator (someone who's paid to be left alone to draw all day, ) and never really considered the idea that maybe I'd enjoy pulling espresso shots for hundreds of people a day. It seems so separate and yet the connections are obvious.
It is a stereotype of course, the Art-grad working in a coffeeshop. It's almost accepted that the person serving you is a partly repressed thespian or musician or painter, just trying to pay the bills. There is a degree of showmanship involved. Or maybe its simply because the creative arts degrees don't really make you highly employable.
Or maybe creatives are drawn to these jobs because they provide an outlet. Another craft to care about, and some of that mental reward from creating an experience that others may enjoy. In that sense I reckon creativity is bound up in all human endeavour, its the driving force of progression. If you are to do something you do it your own way and you do it well.
It should be championed, not dismissed because it *might* disturb. But then certain businesses are more suited to these "extra curricular activities". A live jazz quartet in a butchers might be too incongruous. But then again, why not?
For further (much shorter) reading about other exciting places exceeding the brief look: here>>
And for an interesting read about doing things well, here's a chap who really knows, you don't really predict your career path: here>>
Next blog we'll be getting down to it with a refractometer and a Syphon, a pseudo-science fest for the coffee geeks coming up!