Coffee Shops Are On the Brink Of Losing Their Place In American Culture

For decades, scholars and writers have obsessed over this notion of the “third place,” a sociological term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place to describe those social settings separate from our home (that is, the “first place”) and office (the “second place”).

Oldenburg’s reverence for the third place — which includes coffee shops, churches, libraries, and bookstores — was never in doubt. “If there is no neutral ground in the neighbourhoods where people live, association outside the home will be impoverished,” he wrote. “Many, perhaps most, neighbours will never meet, to say nothing of associate, for there is no place for them to do so.”

No matter the century nor the continent, it is not hard to see Oldenburg’s idea of the third place on display. In the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses were known as “schools of wisdom,” places where people would play chess and talk politics. In 17th century London, it was the so-called “penny universities” — a nod to one-cent coffeehouse entrance fees — where the British intelligentsia gathered to riff on the philosophical questions of the day. And in the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s, cafés were the stomping grounds of beatniks, hippies, anti-war activists.

“The very emergence of a public was based on people having a place to go to be a public,” said Augustine Sedgewick, a historian and author of Coffeeland. “It was a more free-floating social entity called the public that took shape only after there was a place for it to do so. And the first institutions that nurtured this public were coffeehouses.”

Even now in the 21st century, when we can just as easily talk to someone over Zoom or through Twitter, cafés showed no signs of going away. Across America, there are an estimated 35,000 coffee shops. Gross, the owner of Ox, can’t help but brag about what his café has afforded the neighborhood: ”Every two months we have — well we had — rotating art from local artists,” he said. Ox also hosted live music and political meetups. “We had a get-out-the-vote event in 2018,” Gross said. “The mayor was there!”

“I don’t want to ask anybody to risk their life for a latte.”

Ten miles away, in the college town of Haverford, Pennsylvania, Zach Morris had a similar vision in mind when he opened Green Engine Coffee Co. in 2015. “The romantic idea of building a place for a community, that is 100% why I did it,” Morris said. “The thing that gave me goosebumps was how many people told me, ‘I’ve been coming in here for a couple of years, and I wrote my dissertation here,’ or, ‘I got my Master’s degree studying here.’”

Nearly 3,000 miles across the country, Pipo Bui, co-owner of Seattle Coffee Works, fawned over her cafe’s intimate and friendly setting. “There could be six people sitting, engaging in a conversation,” she told me. “You might actually spend some intensive time with strangers, and get to know them a little bit.”

This tender image has since become a nightmare scene of potential infection, one the coffee shops have had to avoid. Seattle Coffee Works is still relying nearly exclusively on direct-to-consumer coffee bean sales, while Green Engine, like Ox, also sells food and coffee to go. As bad as it has been, it is also a best-case scenario under the circumstances. All three are part of what Peter Giuliano, the chief research officer for the Specialty Coffee Association, said has been an encouraging trend: “Seventy-five percent of businesses have stayed open during this time,” he said. “A lot of companies surprised themselves by how much business they were able to get back.”

Of course, that’s not to say these places are thriving, merely that they’re surviving. In Bui’s case, Seattle Coffee Works now relies on roasting and shipping beans for the vast majority of its profits (only one of their four locations is open to customers). “We went from 30 mailers a week last year, to 360 last week,” she said. Yet even so, those sales are the equivalent to what one of their four cafés used to bring in. By her estimation, revenues are down 75%. Still, given that King County has seen by far the most Covid cases in Washington state, it’ll likely be a while yet until a customer can walk into a downtown Seattle Coffee Works location.

“Our employees are not ready to come back to the cafés,” Bui said. “I don’t want to ask anybody to risk their life for a latte.”

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