"Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?" – Albert Camus
In the five years it took for me to complete my book, The Monopolists, I wrote in more than 50 different coffee shops in six different states. They ranged from airport Starbucks to local roasters near my home in New York City to, yes, even the café at Powell's in Portland, a venue I began frequenting as a child.
The relationship between writers and coffee shops can be complicated, but I felt compelled to thank these coffee purveyors in my book's acknowledgements because they played a critical, often understated role in helping make a lump of ideas into a book. They inspired and empowered me, kept me warm and positive in dark hours with the manuscript, and prevented me from arriving at my book party in a straightjacket.
The nexus between coffee shops and ideas has a tense history. In 1675, King Charles II of England was so angered by the political activity taking place in such beverage meccas that he made a Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses, shunning the "idle and disaffected persons" who "misspend much of their time" and produce "very evil and dangerous effects." The proclamation survived less than a month, after citizens rose up against it, which surely puts complaints about the lack of a soy dairy alternative into perspective.
Coffee shops provide even the most sloth-like writers with a sense of empowerment because by merely bringing our creative angst into public, we find ourselves in good company. Johann Sebastian Bach said that without his morning coffee, he was "like a dried up piece of roast goat." Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were famous café dwellers, the former writing with a preference for a café au lait while he laid down ideas with a pencil in a notebook that he retrieved from his coat pocket. It's an image that is both inspiring and a source of malaise to us modern-day laptop zombies.
"Coffee is a lot more than just a drink," Gertrude Stein said. "It's something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup."
Today, some authors carry on the tradition of beverage-induced gratitude, and it's even reciprocated. Malcolm Gladwell thanked Savoy in Soho in his acknowledgements for Blink. Ipsento in Chicago has sandwiches named after C. S. Lewis and Garrison Keillor. In contrast, others have started laptop or cell phone bans and lament the new digital transients, who squat, type, and don't purchase a damn thing.
The problem coffee shops solve for many writers is providing a sense of purpose. There were many moments when after working on my book in my apartment, I would emerge after a few hours into society and feel like the Unabomber stepping out of his cabin, blinded by the light of humanity in a city street. You can upgrade your jammies or adult onesie for jeans and (often) plaid and feel like a member of the world rather than puttering around your home thinking about how worthless your opening sentence is. If you took that behavior to a coffee shop, you'd most likely be escorted out, the pitying gaze of patrons behind you.
Much of the book writing process is spent in front of a screen, but being in a coffee shop is a reminder that your readers are actually real people, not a collection of pixels. That your words don't just flop into an abyss or under an editor's red pen, or into the horror of the bargain bin. They're ideas and stories that will ultimately be consumed by other real human beings, most of whom you won't know personally at all. Or, maybe just your dad. But he cares, too.
Anyone who has worked in food services or retail can tell you the position is also a front-row ticket to the best and worst of humanity. I've seen baristas deal with the elderly, the children, perverts, perfectionists, homeless patrons, mundane regulars, snobs, mumblers, vegans, tourists, and everything in between. And often with a stoic smile and the cacophony of coffee chemistry equipment, they brew on. Take what you think you should be tipping and double it. It's still the cheapest office surcharge out there.
The ambient noise of coffee shops is reminiscent of me to newsrooms, providing an ideal auditory buzz under which to compose. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that background noise from 70 to 50 decibels enhances performance on creative tasks, whereas a high level of noise of 85 decibels or more hurts creativity. Eighty-five decibels is not an unreasonable noise level for a coffee shop, which leads me to my trick of plugging in earbuds and not playing anything. You muffle the outside noise and signal to those around you, "leave me the hell alone."
Yet nothing will kill coffee shop productivity like being sucked into the drama of the surrounding tableau. The most compelling of which are first dates, a mainstay at coffee shops. Eavesdropping on them is creepy, for sure, but the drama of two people trying to assess whether or not they're soul mates is almost always more interesting than going through line edits.
But perhaps that's precisely what a writer needs when stuck — a reminder of the absurdity and existential remnants of the human experience. Or just a cup of coffee.