It seems to be an understated tradition for prospective authors to fuel themselves with coffee and write in said coffee shops. Why so? Well, let’s start with a little history of the coffeehouse.
Coffeehouses first appeared in Turkey in the mid-1500s and when coffee first appeared in Europe in the 17th century, coffeehouses were soon established and quickly became very popular. The first coffeehouses appeared in Venice in 1629 due to its being a central trade hub. London’s first coffeehouse opened in 1652 and by 1675, there were more than 30,000 coffeehouses in England. These gained political importance owing to their popularity as places of debate. While Charles II tried to suppress the number of London coffeehouses, seeing them as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”, they were too popular. Coffeehouses were seen as the great social levellers indifferent to social status and as a result became equated with equality and republicanism.
Coffeehouses became fashionable places to meet, conduct business, gossip, exchange ideas and debate the news of the day. Each coffeehouse tended to attract certain clientele defined by occupation, interest or attitude, such as Tories and Whigs, traders and merchants, wits and stockjobbers, poets, booksellers and authors, and men of fashion and leisure. Women, however, were often excluded from coffeehouses in Europe and are documented as such in England and France although women in Germany could go to coffeehouses. The status of women in coffeehouses tends to be argued by historians however.
Polite conversation, as a product of the Enlightenment, led to reasoned and sober debate on matters of politics, science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion, so much so that London coffeehouses became known as ‘penny universities’, as that was the price of a cup of coffee. One could read newspapers, treatises and other important works. Some coffeehouses acted as venues for merchants discussing insurance deals while others had auction salesrooms attached leading to the establishment of the world-famous auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
In the UK, famous and influential patrons included Samuel Pepys, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Isaac Newton although they also acted as haunts for lesser clientele such as criminals and prostitutes, scoundrels and pimps.
The coffeehouse felt out of favour at the end of the 18th century as tea replaced coffee as the fashionable drink and many gave way to, and greatly influenced, the exclusive gentlemen’s club. However, the Victorian Temperance Movement revived the coffeehouse as an alternative to pubs where the working-class could meet and socialise. Arguably though, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the coffeehouse / coffee shop was ‘reinvented’ by companies such as Costa Coffee, Starbucks, etc. Coffee shops in America arose from Italian coffeehouses of the Italian-American immigrant communities and in the 1960s, were copiously copied as the youth culture evolved. Fast forward to now and with its comforting surroundings and – most significantly – free Wi-Fi, society it seems cannot live without the coffee shop.
Thus, coffee shop writing is not a new concept. Take Ernest Hemingway for example:
It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. – Ernest Hemingway
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a fan of the Parisian La Rotonde as was Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. The poet Peter Altenburg was even known to have his letters delivered to his favourite coffeehouse. Another establishment, Antico Caffe Greco in Rome and founded in 1760, has served as a home from home over the centuries including Lord Byron, John Keats, Henrik Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen amongst its patrons.
So clearly working in a coffee shop does favourable things for writers. There are several theories floating about from various sources as to why this is so I’ll list some here:
There’s just enough distraction.
I personally find it very hard to write in silence, even nigh-on impossible which is why I absolutely must have some video-game music playing as I write. Even so, I find my productivity is heightened with people talking and such in the office I write in (I have a part-time, casual job and no-one minds me coming in every day using a computer for writing purposes plus admittedly cadging coffee) even while I have headphones on. It must be the atmosphere or indeed, ambience.
So silence is distracting as is too much noise like a TV blaring say, but coffee shops seem to have a level of conversation you can semi-consciously tune out. The mind tends to rebel at forcing yourself to focus on a single task but adding another element perhaps balances it out.
It seems less like work and you’re not at home.
Related to the above, coffee shops feel like places where you can have a nice bit of time to yourself and a little treat which, unless you have the best job in the world, does not feature in the normal workplace. So if it doesn’t feel like work and you enjoy the activity, then you’re far more likely to be productive and get a lot down. Same goes for working away from home. You sleep, eat, watch TV and the like at home. You might also work from home which then has implications on writing enjoyment. Home also has distractions in the form of those household chores, TV programmes, etc. There’s a lot of benefit in just getting out of the house when feeling down or even just meh so a coffee shop seems like a good place to go.
You can easily people-watch.
People-watching is practically an art form and one that I like to indulge in at pubs/restaurants as well as coffee shops. You hear all kinds of things that may or may not be necessarily interesting but you learn a lot about other people and quite likely provide good inspiration, especially if you’re thinking about writing some kind of literary fiction. I really should start writing down the weird stuff I overhear.
Also, writing can be a lonely activity. Being surrounded by people makes the task less lonely and thus can help spur creativity.
It’s a comfortable environment.
I’ll probably start writing in coffee shops more when I move on from my part-time job in Blackburn to that nice, editorial job at a London publisher when I get that successful application. The great advantage in writing stuff at my workplace (as I’m doing now in fact) is that the desk is that the optimum height with a desktop computer and it has a good, comfortable chair. I do not have this at home as the table is one of those breakfast bar kind of tables with those tall, wooden chairs with only a cushion. Not only is there not enough room to write on that narrow table, you can’t sit on the chair for that long before it gets really uncomfortable. Likewise, I can’t rest my laptop on my knee on one of the living-room chairs before that too gets uncomfortable. That’s my place for reading and playing handheld games anyway. And there’s no room for a proper desk and chair at my current home.
This is where the coffee shop comes in. Last time I went to Costas’ with my Dad, waiting for the car to be serviced, we somehow ended up spending three full hours there on really comfy seats just talking about various things. And being surrounded by shops on one side and the market below, you see a lot of people going by and the noise level is just right. So if, like me, you don’t have an adequate working environment at home or you’re too distracted there anyway, you can grab a nice, comfy place at your nearest coffee shop and start writing.
You have a time limit.
This can be bad or good depending on your thinking but look at it like this: if you’re writing at home, you have as much time as you want since you’re not intruding on anyone else’s time or whatever so you can take your time maybe? Unfortunately, this can lead to procrastination and several hours later, you realise you’ve been spending more time ‘researching’ on TV Tropes than actually writing (I speak from experience). So going to a coffee shop or other place with time limits may help spur you to write.
The disadvantage of course is how much coffee you drink and the price of said coffee unless you buy a cold drink instead and make it last a long time. You might feel you’ve overstayed your welcome if you’ve had a drink and don’t want to or can’t buy another and most establishments generally don’t like loiterers especially if they’re really busy. Still, on the other hand, you’re not paying for Wi-Fi, heating or lighting which is surely really beneficial in winter. And if you get to know the people there, maybe you’ll get a free cup every now and then as I occasionally get a free drink at my local pub. And building connections helps in all walks of life.
It makes us purposeful.
As part of a 2004 academic thesis on Wi-Fi and coffee shops, Neeti Gupta discusses our fear of having no purpose:
… when we are alone in a public place, we have a fear of “having no purpose”. If we are in a public place and it looks like that we have no business there, it may not seem socially appropriate. In coffee-shops it is okay to be there to drink coffee but loitering is definitely not allowed by coffee-shop owners, so coffee-shops patrons deploy different methods to look “busy”. Being disengaged is our big social fear, especially in public spaces, and people try to cover their “being there” with an acceptable visible activity.
And we usually want to look good to other people don’t we? Being productive looks good and so coffee shops are good for being productive. Probably. So you can stay longer and get your writing done.
It has coffee.
‘Cause some people need caffeine!!!
…Well, I tend to go for decaff because caffeine tends to make me feel tired without actually getting the helpful boost but it’s the same principle. Also, there’s smoothies and juices which last longer anyway so you won’t quite get kicked out in a short space of time.
Do you find yourself more productive in coffee shops if you’ve ever done your writing there? Are there other benefits and reasons as to this productivity? As a writer-to-be, I must know!