I want a return of the 17th century London coffeehouse. No, really. ("Koffie in Nederland: Viereeuwen culturgeschiendenis," 1668, Wikimedia file in public domain)
I want a return of the 17th and 18th century London coffeehouse. No, really. (“Koffie in Nederland: Viereeuwen culturgeschiendenis,” 1668, Wikimedia file in public domain)

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.writingonthewallbig

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.

coffeehousequote“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.

The appeal of coffee shops has rarely been just about the coffee. (Kurt Schlosser photo)
The appeal of coffee shops has rarely been just about the coffee. (Kurt Schlosser photo)

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/roberte3 Robert Eickmann

    If someone was interested in reviving Saturday House, which met many of the criteria for being a “Penny University”. I’d be glad to help get it going again.

    It met for over two years, in various places and had a couple of dedicated spaces as well.


    -Rob Eickmann

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I love that this happened. Why did it stop?

  • KyleKesterson

    Great piece. It makes me think of Sports Bars and watching the game. They are probably one of the more successful versions of this, where people come in and have a reason to have real life conversations, debates, and learn more about the topic. The game/tv itself is a moderator of sorts, keeping the conversation progressing along as the game develops and the sportscasters keep pumping in perspective.

    Would these coffeehouses need some sort of moderator? Would it be open to whoever has the conch, or loudest voice? Would there be a neutral and accessible activity for people to gather around, where conversations are secondary but easier to have, or is just sitting and talking the entire focus? Will cliques form and prevent the meeker or newer participant from feeling like they can confidently contribute? If it’s the same people time and again, will they start to form similar perspectives and lose provoking contrasts?

    Can’t wait to see this develop!

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Ooh. Great questions. I love the idea of there NOT needing to be a scheduled activity to organize organic conversation. We’re used to that these days and it works well. Plus, this model worked because different coffeeshops over time developed reputations for hosting different conversations. A similar, small scale experiment today would probably need more structure. As for a moderator, my impression is that there weren’t any. Dominant personalities, when they showed up, I assume knew how to hold the group’s attention. Otherwise, it was probably all about just who was around. It’s hard to know, of course. But it’s the spontaneity, and the reliability of walking in to an interesting, engaging conversation (or at least being able to spark one without a problem) that most drew me to this.

  • Trevor Klein

    Really cool idea — I do wish there were more ways to have random interactions with strangers that ran deeper than “some weather we’re having.” This sounds like a possible next incarnation of Science on Tap, a program sponsored by KCTS and the Pacific Science Center. A local bar hosts a short lecture on a science-related topic, encouraging discussion and questions afterward.

    Making the discussion ongoing would be fantastic, and subbing coffee for the alcohol seems like a logical step. =)

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Yes! I don’t know how alone I am in this, but I crave that space where everyone just talks to each other about ideas, just for the heck of it, just because you’re all there. Scheduled events have objectives and structure that can limit loose creativity, divide people into “speakers” and “audience” and generally put people in boxes, or at least their time.

  • Troy DeFrank

    Nice post, Monica. I think Steven Johnson (“The Invention of Air”) has written quite a bit about the influence of coffee and the coffee house on the age of enlightenment in Europe. A really interesting, and maybe obvious, point was that after the introduction of coffee from the New World, Europe’s intellectuals were now hopped up on caffeine most of the time, rather than drunk off wine. Wits were sharper, one presumes…

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Yes! Standage made that point, too. England was overrun by taverns, and alcohol is a downer. Coffee, of course, is an upper. A very different effect.

  • Marilyn

    As recently as the late 1990s, this how coffee houses were. Then came laptops, smart phones, and tablets. Coffee shops didn’t change, the patrons did.

  • boop

    Why does everyone write “1700s” instead of 16th century and “1800s” instead of 17th century? It gets on my nerves.

    • boop

      I meant 18th century instead of 1700s and 19th century instead of 1800s. Obviously I need to stop with the margaritas at lunch.

      • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

        That’s annoying to me, too. But you can’t call the first hundred years AD the zeroeth century, you have to call it the first.

  • drgone

    You should drop by metrix sometime.

  • Stephen Purpura

    I have this experience in NYC right now and I agree it’s useful. A real struggle to get me to engage in Seattle is “where” and “when”?

  • http://gumption.typepad.com Joe McCarthy

    I, too, would welcome greater openness to broader – and deeper – serendipitous conversations with more people … well, at least, there are times when I would welcome that.

    Several years ago, I started a project – the Community Collage (or CoCollage) – in which we attempted to bridge the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline social networks. We deployed large displays in about 2 dozen coffeehouses around Seattle that would show photos from customer and/or staff profiles (uploaded directly or linked to a Flickr or Facebook account), with the goal of prompting conversations, awareness and appreciation among the people in the coffeehouse. It was a mixed success. What we learned is that a lot of people don’t want to meet anyone new, or engage in serendipitous conversations lasting more than a few seconds, when they go to a coffeehouse: they are going there to get work done and/or meet with specific people.

    FWIW, shortly after I abandoned the project, I wrote a longish blog post about Coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, in which I reviewed several other books about coffeehouse culture.

  • Val Sanford Group

    “The Invention of Air” by Steven Johnson puts forth the same idea: innovation and creativing come through the open exchange of ideas and information and credits the London Coffee Houses for much of the scientific and political thought for the 18th and 19th Centuries. Here’s to more coffee houses!

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