Why Coffee Shops Spark Creativity
No, it’s not the caffeine
I love coffee, but I love coffee shops even more. I cherish that sublime feeling of firing up my laptop at my favorite haunt, sipping dark roast, surrounded by fellow humans. The coffee shop is where adults engage in parallel play. Alone in the crowd I am not really alone at all.
The world’s first coffee house sprang up in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1554. From the outset, coffee was considered dangerous. It was known as the “revolutionary drink,” the stimulus of the masses. When people drank coffee, they got agitated, and who knew where that agitation might lead. Soon after Jacob’s coffeehouse opened, King Charles II issued a decree limiting their numbers. And no wonder. The whiff of democracy was in the air. Europe’s first coffeehouses were called levelers, as were the people who frequented them. Inside their walls, no one is better than anyone else.
The Viennese coffee house, in particular, was “a sort of democratic club, and anyone could join it for the price of a cheap cup of coffee,” writes Stefan Zweig in his wonderful memoir, The World of Yesterday.
What exactly did that admission price get you? Information. Lots of it. Any coffee house worthy of the name supplied the day’s newspapers, carefully mounted on long wooden poles, as they still are today. This is where you went to find out what was happening around the corner, or halfway around the world.
Most of all, the admission price got you conversation and companionship. Fellow travelers. The denizens of the coffee house were of a particular type, that strange combination of introvert and extrovert that defines most geniuses or, as Alfred Polgar puts it in his brilliant 1927 essay, “Theory of the Café Central,” “people whose hatred of their fellow human beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need companionship for it.”
The coffee house is a classic example of a Third Place. Third Places, as opposed to home and office (first and second places), are informal, neutral meeting grounds. Think of the bar in Cheers, or any British pub. Other establishments — barbershops, bookstores, beer gardens, diners, general stores — can also be third places. What they have in common is that they are all sanctuaries, “temporary worlds within the ordinary…