If there’s anything Seattle does better than anyone, it’s coffee shops.
This city’s unbeatable selection of warm, friendly spaces to drop in, meet up and get things done is one big reason I love it.
Now I’m wondering if they can take another big step. Not forward, really, but back.
To the 1700s.
I got on this wild train of thought reading a chapter on London’s old coffeehouse culture that kind of blew my mind in a book called “Writing on the Wall – Social Media: The First 2,000 Years.”
Like Seattle’s coffee shops, those original caffeinated hubs offered cozy furniture, an open, informal environment and lots of time to hang out for just the price of one “dish” of coffee — a drink that even then marked a sharp intellect and a curious mind.
Customers dropped in to any of the 800 coffee houses that dotted London circa 1800 to “imbibe information as well as coffee,” as author Tom Standage put it, which should sound familiar enough.
But they wouldn’t pull out their laptops, hook up to WiFi and put on headphones. Obviously.
They’d talk to each other in ways we don’t. In ways we haven’t, really, in ages.
Tobacco smoke and likely white-men-only exclusivity aside, doesn’t this sound fun?
“Entering a coffeehouse, one would be greeted through thick clouds of tobacco smoke by the cry ‘What news have you?’ and would then look for a space at a large table covered with papers of various kinds…
“Sometimes a text would be read aloud by one person at a table, with pauses for explanation and discussion. Conversation between strangers was encouraged, and distinctions of class status were to be left at the door.”
And get this. Individual coffeehouses were so closely associated with particular topics of interest — science, philosophy, economics — that a periodical of the time, the Tatler, used coffeehouse names as subject headings for its articles.
Some called the coffeehouses “penny universities” because of all you could learn from these great minds over coffee.
“If you wanted to know what London’s scientists were talking about, for example, and make contact with them, all you had to do was walk into the Grecian coffeehouse,” Standage writes.
Now, I’m not so naive I don’t realize there are excellent reasons this coffeehouse culture is hundreds of years behind us.
Our society runs on individual productivity. In that sense, the best place for any conversation is online, where we can access it wherever we want, whenever we want, for purposes we can decide and direct. (Seattle’s coffee shops are a digital worker’s best friend. See GeekWire’s list of 15 features to look for.)
We’re not really alone when we sit in a coffee shop with our laptops anyway. We jump from interest community to interest community, periodical to periodical, joining more topical chats that are both more discoverable and accessible than what you’d have found after long walks down London streets.
Besides, the tech curmudgeons are wrong. Digital conversations haven’t killed in-person ones.
You can’t just walk in on a spontaneous public debate the way you could in these old coffeehouses, but that doesn’t mean a good debate is hard to find, or create. Coffee shops and plenty of other spaces play host to club meetings, society mixers and all kinds of idea exchanges. They’re not ongoing. Just…scheduled.
So who am I kidding. It’s clear whose age has the upper hand here.
But could there be just one, do you think?
Just one coffee shop where ideas and conversation were not private, by default, but shared? Not served up to one person on one screen but actually part of an already cozy, already chat-friendly public environment?
And you could show up any time of day with something to share and someone to share it with, out loud, so anyone in earshot could respond to it, and would, and gladly?
Maybe I’m a sucker for live conversation. Heck, I know I’m a sucker for live conversation. There’s a life to what people share when they can feel the energy of a group, and I dig it. I’d take more of it in a second.
Now that I know these coffeehouses once existed, I want them back.
And I can’t think of a better place than Seattle to revive them.