In 1894, on the day of the grand opening of Budapest’s New York Café – a coffee house furnished with marble, silk and bronze, housed in an Italian Renaissance-style palace – playwright and novelist Ferenc Molnár stole the keys to the front door and threw them into the Danube so that the café could never be closed. So the story goes, according to café lore. Whether or not this story is entirely true is insignificant; what is important is the sentiment it represents – haven’t most of us felt some similar if not equal passion for our own coffee house? Certainly I had. Without frescoes or chandeliers or frills of any kind, I fell in love with my own plain house, and I fell hard. I went regularly and stayed for long periods of time. I loved that the baristas knew me by name, inquired about my work and refilled my cup before I could ask. But what I loved most of all was that, no matter the time of day, it was always filled to capacity with readers and writers, students and intellectuals, who had come with a singular purpose: to read, to write, to study and to think – together, in public. How could one ever feel pessimistic, lonely or uninspired here? What a place! But then one day, with little warning, out went the beautiful iron-sided tables and comfortable chairs, and with them the people and all of their books.
The reason for the new design could be explained away as aesthetic – tiny ‘café’ tables after all! – but one could see from the unnecessarily large swathe of empty space, which now looped from door to counter and back to door, that there had only ever been one goal in mind: to increase circulation in order to increase sales. An unfortunate side effect of which was a severe reduction in comfortable seating – or seating of any kind, for that matter – and, subsequently, the elimination of opportunities for any kind of exchange not financial in nature. While across the sea European coffee houses have been making their patrons more comfortable, while sponsoring prizes in literature and hosting exhibitions of international art (think: the Venice Biennale), US coffee houses have been undergoing a minimalist makeover that relegates them to pedestrian versions of the drive-through. Its most loyal patrons have either been forgotten or were never really understood at all. The latter is likely.
As Gertrude Stein put it, coffee has always been ‘like an event’ giving those who consume it in public ‘a chance to be, like be yourself ’. We do not go to coffee houses for the coffee. At least, not those of us who sit in. We go to look and listen and read and write and think and create. Of course, these things could all be done at home, but why do them privately only? We go because we want something to happen and because something electric does happen when we do these things as a community – a chain reaction. We go to be and to be seen, to show who we are, to think about who we’ve been, and to consider who we might be. We go to be reminded of something or to forget something that we’re reminded of too often. We go to fall in love or to move on. We go to be alone, to get lost in a crowd. We go to be less alone. We go because we want someone to witness something, or because we want to be witnesses. We go because we want to figure something out or because we want to be asked a question. We go because we want to be recovered or uncovered. We go because we want to live and be a part of the world, and this means being with others who also want to live and be a part of the world. We go because it is something to do. We go because we wonder what will happen to us and what is possible. We do not go for the coffee. We go because the coffee house has always given us freedom, more than any other space – personally, socially, politically, intellectually and artistically. What other venue allows us to be so completely human? We go because the coffee house is, and has always been, one of the most effective and incredible incubators in world history. When we claim them as our own, the sit-down coffee house isn’t selling coffee – it’s serving culture.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the coffee house has been both venue and host of the most amazing and influential cocktail party of all time. As early as the six- teenth century people gathered in shops in Mecca and Constantinople to tell stories, debate and talk openly about politics. In seventeenth-century London coffee houses were the most fashionable places to spend one’s time, so much so that the way to know thy neighbour was not to evaluate their clothing, profession or home address, but to find out which coffee house they frequented. The exchange of ideas was so impressive during this time that the coffee house has been called the birthplace of the enlightenment. Further proof that the best accessory to bring to the coffee house has always been a book, shops around the world – Literaturnoe Kafe in St Petersburg; Café Montmartre in Prague; The Antico Caffè Greco in Rome; La Rotonde, Le Dôme Café, Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and Café Procope in Paris; and New York City’s Caffè Reggio, to name just a few – were the home away from home for writers from all over the globe: Russian novelists such as Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky; Romantic fellows such as Byron and Keats; realists and absurdists; American ex- patriate writers Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein; French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; Norwegian dramatists; folk lyricists; and Beat poets. What other venue can claim such a guest list? More importantly, why should the party end now?
Like the owners of these businesses, we can choose to think of our coffee houses as sites that generate wealth. Increasing the cultural profit they yield doesn’t require an elaborate, time-consuming and costly redesign of one’s person or one’s life. It only requires that we sit down with a book in a public place and remain open to the possibilities that follow. What would be possible if ‘public intellectual’ was not a term that referenced a single individual, but rather a community that engages in reading, writing and discourse in public, as if these acts were as fundamental as eating when hungry and drinking when thirsty? If by sitting in we took the keys so that our coffee houses could never close, who could we be as individuals and as a culture – or as Stein would say: Who could we be, like really be?