Monday, September 18, 2006

 

What are coffee shops for?

Last weekend I had the best homemade cappuccino I’ve ever had. My friend Robin invited me to a coffee tasting at the home of a friend of hers who is soon to open a coffee shop here in Santa Monica. It was a pretty small affair – basically just a little group of friends clustered around the host, Touraj Rahimi, as he manned a rinky-dink home machine and turned out some pretty great espresso drinks. Honestly, this cappuccino was better than most of what you can get in coffee shops around L.A. So for a second there, I started to rethink my general rule about making a cappuccino at home: why bother? I gave up on it a long time ago. Too many variables, too much time, too much money… and then at the end of all that hard work, you have to clean up your kitchen. As hard as it is to find a great cappuccino in a coffee shop, it’s still easier than making one at home. (If you have any curiosity about some of what goes into making good espresso at home, check out home-barista.com or browse some of the discussion threads on alt.coffee.)

So as I was standing there in Touraj’s kitchen, sipping my excellent homemade cappuccino, Touraj was kind enough to let me barrage him with questions about his planned coffee shop. When would it open? Early 2007. Where would it be? Near Santa Monica College, in the vicinity of Pico and 16th. What would it be called? The Schubert Coffee House. Why? Because Schubert is one of Touraj’s favorite composers. Then we got to the question whose answer has been floating around in my head for the better part of a week. Why did Touraj decide to open a coffee shop? I’ve asked this question to dozens of coffee shop owners over the past few years, and I’ve never gotten an answer quite like Touraj’s. Here’s what he told me:

Touraj is a middle-aged man who spent the first part of his career working “in computers.” A while back, he grew very interested in development, as in third-world development. He did some work in that area and spent some time in developing countries, and he began to think that many of the solutions to the problems those countries face are to be found here in the U.S., in our foreign policy. He came back to the U.S. and enrolled in grad school, but within a short time, he got discouraged about the possibility of really effecting change on the path he was on. So he decided that - given the dearth of public spaces to engage in debate and discussion - a better way to effect change would be to open a coffee shop. He has spent the past few years researching the market, refining his ideas, and learning about coffee. His idea is for the coffee shop to be a nice place to hang out during the day but to have an event of some sort scheduled for just about every night of the week. He’d like some of the events to be what most of us would consider pretty typical for a coffee house – musical performances, poetry readings, and so on. But he’d also like to host lectures, debates and readings of a scholarly and political nature.

The idea that someone in this day and age would view opening a coffee shop as a good route for arriving at social change positively tickles me. I think many people (myself included) have some kind of idealized notion of what a coffee shop should be – not only a place to purchase coffee, but also a kind of salon for the exchange of ideas and the formation of community. And when you look at the history of coffee shops, they did live up to that ideal for a good portion of their history. In fact, it’s pretty amazing how central they were to the development of democracy and capitalism (for better or for worse, I suppose). In 1600’s England, for instance, coffee houses were home to intellectual inquiry, business transactions and political debate; they were home to the Enlightenment. Stock trading began in coffee houses, as did the insurance industry. The ballot box first came into use in coffee houses so that people could express their political opinions openly without fear of reprisal. The Royal Society first met in a coffee house; I mean, we are talking about Isaac Newton and his peers debating the theory of gravity over a dish of coffee. And the French Revolution was started in a coffee house! I could go on. But my point is that off and on for a fairly long stretch of western history, coffee shops were basically the internet – an open forum for networking, for exchanging news, and for engaging in essentially unregulated and egalitarian debate (often at historical moments when unregulated and egalitarian debate was kind of a radical concept). There were some less noble sides to this; coffee shops were also rumor mills (just like the internet), and it’s not as if every discussion was high-toned and productive (again, just like the internet). But by and large, the history of coffee shops in western society (and, to a certain extent, in middle eastern society as well) is one of intellectual engagement, community formation and the foundation of significant social and political movements.

But let’s be honest: coffee shops do not function that way in our society anymore. I keep looking for it, but I just don’t see it. When you walk into most coffee shops today, you see oceans of people staring at their laptops. A bunch of people being alone together in public.

I’ll be honest: my heart sinks a little every time I see this. I wonder a lot about why this is the state of things, and I think this issue has been at the heart of the documentary I’m making. The most logical explanation would seem to be that coffee shops no longer fill the role that they used to because we don’t need them to anymore. In the age of mass media, we have much more efficient ways of disseminating news and engaging in public discussion. Why talk to 10 people in a coffee shop when you can “talk” to thousands of people on the internet? It is so much easier than it used to be to exchange ideas with very large numbers of people. And obviously, I am as happy as the next person to take advantage of the many means at my disposal for communicating at a distance.

So why, then, do I feel a kind of weird nostalgia for a time before I was born, when coffee shops really were vital centers of activity? Have we genuinely lost something or am I just being silly and romanticizing something that it would be impossible to recreate anyway? I think it boils down to this question: What is the value of discussing things face-to-face with other people? I can hear a voice in my head saying that I am being a mushy, emotional GIRL right now, but I can’t get away from the idea that there is something irreplaceable about BEING THERE – looking into the face of the person you’re speaking to. We communicate differently with others when we are actually in one another’s presence. I mean, just look at the way people are assholes to each other on the internet. I’ve been subscribing to alt.coffee for about six months now, and it never ceases to amaze me how ready these guys are to just assume the worst about each other and to say outrageously cruel and insulting things to people they’ve never met and know nothing about. Someone will post a completely innocuous question (or, worse yet, an opinion) and before you know it there’s blood in the water and the feeding frenzy is underway. And I always think that there’s no way these guys would say these things to each other if they were sitting in the same room together. They would most certainly disagree, but I think they’d be more respectful about it and more ready to acknowledge each other’s humanity. Or at least the presence of witnesses would shame them into showing some good manners.

So I think this is why I am so tickled by Touraj’s mission for his coffee shop. He perceived a need for public dialogue, and he made a choice that implies that actually being in the same room with someone has a power that is different from the power of exchanging words or pictures at a distance. So I am very curious to see what will come of his experiment. Is the face-to-face way of engaging in debate and discussion really dead? Or is Touraj going to tap into some unmet need in a lot of people? I literally feel like the dog who sees another dog from across the park. My ears are pricked up; my nose is quivering; I am all attention, waiting to see what happens next.

And in the meanwhile, I guess I’ve figured out yet another reason why I don’t really want to bother trying to make a good cappuccino at home.

Comments:
I just finished reading your blog at my coffeeshop. I would've been talking to people, but you made me stare at my computer screen.

Just my opinion here, but I have mixed feelings about Touraj's mission. But listen, I'm jaded and I'm in the middle of the country (not that there's anything wrong with that).
There are tons of people who have opened up "coffeehouses" for reasons OTHER than coffee. And it shows. So my first instinct is to cringe when you say someone wants to open a coffeehouse for reasons other than coffee. Why not a creperie? Or a Unitarian church? It's arbitrary.
The other thing that strikes me is that I hope Touraj is rich. I'm sure he is, so this point will be immaterial. But in my experiences, the only way to make money in a coffeehouse is to either make really good coffee or make really bad coffee. Really good coffee gets the attention of people with taste buds (there aren't very many), and really bad coffee can be sold to the masses (this is where you make TONS of money).
I've talked to lots of people who thought they had a good idea for a business, but neglected to figure out how it was going to make money. I could be accused of that, if it weren't for the constant scheming and plotting of capitalist strategies that I do (while refusing to compromise the standards of my coffee). Hmph.
I'm down with what you are saying though, Amy. I definitely like for my coffeeshop to be the center of political, religious, and cultural diversity and debate. The more controversial it is, the more I like it. I'm just not sure a coffeeshop can live on that alone.

Whatever you set your sights on in business is what you will achieve. That's what I have learned.

Good luck Touraj.
 
I know, you're right, there is definitely this phenomenon of the coffee house that is an AWESOME place to hang out but the coffee tastes like the bottom of my shoe after a day at the petting zoo. In fact, for a long time, this was the ONLY kind of coffee shop you could find in L.A. aside from Starbucks or Coffee Bean. Lots of personality... lots of that good ol' coffee house feel... terrible, undrinkable coffee.

So... I am hoping that Touraj's place won't turn out to be one of those. Given the skill he displayed in his kitchen, I don't think I'm crazy to hope it. (I can already hear your voice in my head saying that it's completely different pulling shots with a "real" machine and so on, and I know you're right, but humor me in my hope that making a good cappuccino at home and making one with a pro machine are not TOTALLY unrelated.)

But hey, why don't you help make sure that Touraj serves good coffee by selling him some of yours? Just a thought...
 
Brian, thank you for your thoughtful post. You’re tight on the money (pun intended) except that I am not rich! Schubert coffeehouse (I intentionally called it a coffeehouse and not a “café”) will deliver great coffee, beautifully presented, along with other complementary items that would make the customer’s visit a unique experience. So I hope you are right and I’ll make a lot of money. But the point is that while I am delivering a great product, I also would like to see a dynamic place where music is played, lectures are given, films are screened, groups meet up, and after a while, a place “where everybody knows your name.” So, how about selling me some good coffee?!
 
Brian,

thank you for your thoughtful post. You’re tight on the money (pun intended) except that I am not rich! Schubert coffeehouse (I intentionally called it a coffeehouse and not a “café”) will deliver great coffee, beautifully presented, along with other complementary items that would make the customer’s visit a unique experience. So I hope you are right and I’ll make a lot of money. But the point is that while I am delivering a great product, I also would like to see a dynamic place where music is played, lectures are given, films are screened, groups meet up, and after a while, a place “where everybody knows your name.” So, how about selling me some good coffee?!
 
Hey Touraj.
I would love for you to use my coffee in your shop. Drop me an email and we'll discuss more. I can send you some samples when you are ready.
Brian@DoubleShotCoffee.com
 
Hey Touraj.
I would love for you to use my coffee in your shop. Drop me an email and we'll discuss more. I can send you some samples when you are ready.
Brian@DoubleShotCoffee.com
 
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