Sunday, April 15, 2018

Whatever Happened to the Coffee Shop?

Somewhere between a ubiquitous diner and the proliferation of Starbucks stood a brief period where the independent coffee shop reigned supreme, and the chains on the rise were more than just app-driven money mills. Believe it or not, two decades ago, gastropubs and beer gardens weren't the way flannel-clad Gen Xers spent their evenings. There were bars, to be sure, mostly stuffed with stuffy parents sipping Manhattans and complaining about taxes, or sad dives not yet appreciated with a hip sense of irony. 

If we went out to drink, we went out: dance clubs, concert venues, warehouses that were loud, hot, and sweaty. Booze was incidental. Getting together "for a drink" was for old people and alcoholics. When the Slacker Generation gathered to watch the world pass us by, we met up at the coffee shop. 

On the heels of International Coffee Day (do we really need another "Day?"), it's clear that caffeine's addictive personality is sunny as ever. There are six Dunkin Donuts, four Starbucks, two Saxbys, and a La Colombe within two blocks of City Hall, and each does a brisk business. But each operates on a fast food franchise model, not under the cozy notion of a traditional cafe. Even Starbucks, arguably the end result of a fifty year American trend, pales in comparison to its past. Comfy chairs have been swapped out for metal stools which, like those at McDonald's or Burger King, are designed specifically to keep customers from lingering. 

It's unfortunate that an industry built on bringing people together in a warm and inviting atmosphere, welcoming them to lounge for hours, now so blatantly wants to get you and your money in and out as fast as possible. This says nothing of the hours, either. If you want to get out of the house after 7pm, you're options are severely limited. In fact, unless you want a cocktail or beer, there is almost nothing to do after dark.

What happened? Money is certainly a culprit, as is a spendthrift 21st Century culture of consumerism. As with everything, I'm sure technology can be to blame somehow. And of course, generational rifts drive new fads. Millennials will someday lament the loss of micro-brews the way our parents and grandparents may wonder whatever happened to the Supper Club. 

But this isn't exclusively a case of rosy memories and the frustrations of change. The loss of the independent coffee shop is one in a myriad of examples where another layer of our culture is stripped away on behalf of homogenization and the most profitable status quo. It's a bit odd that cafes have gone the way of music shops and bookstores despite offering one of the few products you can't buy on Amazon. Perhaps it was discarded by fickle Millennials, the coveted goldmine of marketing, because of its mere 90s-ness. 

Like all business trends in the 21st Century, metrics drive decisions. For all progressives like to tout a European ideal, they sure have a penchant for corporate creature comforts like Target and Chipotle. We should be embracing the notion that exponential profits and "going public" aren't the end-all goal in life, even business. Start patronizing employees who simply love their jobs. Why aren't we more reluctant to hand our hard earned cash over to corporate entities that view us as nothing more than aggregated data and a transaction?

Of course these are all subjects better fleshed out over a cup of coffee and a cigarette, were there such a place. Maybe we should turn down our nostalgia filters and start looking at Generation X for the insight we once offered, and not just an interim exercise in uselessness. We loved life as we watched it pass us by, and we refused to succumb to "The Man." I'm not sure when that turned into a bad thing, but probably somewhere around the first time a Millennial suggested how much better the world will be once the Civil Rights trail-blazing Baby Boomers start dying. 

They're cold. 

Generational debates are a minefield of conjecture, but there is something valid to be said of a demographic raised amid the isolated anonymity of the internet, and their resignation to corporate greed. Their relationships with the largest companies in the world - Apple, Facebook, Google - are every bit as intimate as, if not more so than, those of family and friends. To Millennials, Starbucks is a Mom and Pop and Amazon is Main Street U.S.A.

Wall Street won, and no one should think that's good. 

Some corporate ills are impossible to avoid - banks, credit cards, utilities, even careers - but we should all be less willing to sell out to those who only feign an interest in their customers' well being when it can be aggregated for a quarterly prospectus. Be less willing to be a number wherever possible, even if it means using cash in lieu of an app. Such tactics are paraded as streamlined simplicity but really just a nefarious way to continue making money off you long after you've left the store. 

We should all want an independent coffee shop at the corner of our block, not just for the coffee, but for everything it represents. 

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