What have cafes become?

Cafes have previously been a place of creative endeavour and vigorous debate. What are they today and how can they change?

Coffee houses or cafes made their first real mark in Turkey in the 17th century, spreading to central Europe in the eighteenth century. They’ve been known for vigorous debate, the spreading of knowledge, creative endeavours for both writers and artists and notedly hubs of dissent for political groups.

In Sydney cafes continue to resonate with people. Since its introduction and the boost that it was given by Italian migration our coffee culture has progressed quite considerably with more and more small batch blends and a discerning consuming public. Suburbs are inundated with small cafes ( unfortunately to the exclusion of any other type of independent business). Walk in the CBD and you see packed coffee chains, buzzing with life. In fact it’s quite a struggle to get a seat at any one of them.

But look a little closer and something is missing. Great coffeehouses are third places- the place that resides between the rest and repose of home and the frantic pace of work or university. They are places of reflection through conversation, solitary introspection through creative activity or vantage points for observation- the old past time of people watching. But again, undertake the last activity in Sydney and you’ll see a different picture.

In cafes, it is becoming rarer to see one with a book, a pencil or staring deep into an acquaintance’s eyes in an attempt to nail the gist of their argument. There is no shortage of frenetic activity, but the word describes it all- large congregations and constant exclamations. It’s worth adding a qualifier here. I believe in the value of the latter. Great joy comes out of bustle, and friendships are deepened beyond words by light banter. The only thing I do miss however, is diversity in the use of a public space that has previously been imbued with so much more.

Back to where we were, what has thus resulted is an effective re-branding of what a cafe is. Cafes are now no longer about solace or finding meaning in another, they are now generally about miscellany. They have taken the place of the footpath and the side street- which is not a bad thing, but is somewhat of a pity given their previous stature. They have, as I will repeat later, become places to go when there’s nowhere to go. Or places to go when you need to look, but not necessarily be, occupied. As it is now frowned upon and even suspicious to walk around doing nothing or stare at the sky, we are forced to disguise our rumination. And the cafe is the perfect place to do that- a miscellaneous activity place.

And this rebranding has created a situation in which we have almost too many cafes, all in direct competition and with some exemptions (as nothing brings back a customer like a personable coffee shop owner and real human connection), very little customer loyalty. Cafes are opening and closing within months in Sydney- and this has almost become the expectation. When a shopfront is newly refurbished and the arrival of a new coffeehouse announced, Sydney siders don’t look forward to the creation of new memories and a future that will stretch decades- they take bets as to how long the new place would last until a newer, hipper, albeit almost identical cafe opens up next to it and gobbles it up.

But what has been responded to in Japan with tighter segmentation- creating separate and deeper pockets of meaning so that more people can enjoy places more intimately, has been responded to in Australia much differently. One only need to go to Tokyo to realise that cafes cater to differing patrons- from those that emulate 19th century ambiances to more modern ‘maid cafe’ permutations that draw links to anime and pop culture.

We seem to have adopted a different approach- one characterised by branded experiences and beautiful interiors. This is a good thing- what is detrimental though, is that the branded experiences we have created don’t truly differ from each other- in fact in many cases they don’t really differ at all, nor are they underpinned by deep meaning (again there are some exemptions). This has meant that as aforementioned, cafes continue to compete for the same pool of customers who look not for a place that is truly their third abode- a place to find one’s self or engage in deep conversation with friends that one is determined to keep close to heart into the far future, but rather a place to go when there’s nowhere to go. Or maybe for colourful sweetened drinks.

So what can we do? As stated before I also love these places- sweet drinks, places to loiter. Imposing a historical definition of a cafe or coffeehouse in an authoritarian manner doesn’t help anyone either. What we can do is break what a cafe means and create a newer, more diverse architecture of meaning that enables people with differing desires to engage deeply with a place that satiates that desire.

A cafe can mean, purely, a third place- a place that touches one and makes them feel at home, propelling them to undertake the activities that matter to them and that are too busy for the sedation of home and far too personal to undertake at the office or school. There will be a plethora of categories, depending on one’s need at a particular point in time. Drawing cafes, Debating cafes, Doggie petting cafes and meet a random friend cafes.

This means two things: happier customers who have given a place beyond work, university and one’s room, and secondly, owners who hopefully don’t have to worry about being around next year, because they’ve found people who relate with what they’ve created on a personal level and will stick around for as long as that place continues to fulfil its promises- to understand the hearts of its customers and continue to give them what they need to get by.

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