Rise and Grind: Coffeehouse and Café Chain Culture

Like most college students, I live for coffee. At this point, I’m not entirely certain whether it's the caffeine, the flavor, or a placebo effect, but I can’t go a morning without it. With a burst of flavor, it wakes me up and inspires me to take on the challenges of my day. Usually, Starbucks is my go-to place — it’s accessible, in the middle of campus, and has decent coffee. However, I felt oddly inspired the other day to break my usual Starbucks routine and popped into Pavement on Commonwealth Avenue.

After getting my hot coffee — which, by the way, was insanely delicious and well-made — I snuggled into a nook in the corner to get some work done. The ambiance was incredible, and looking around, I saw a host of people at small tables conversing with one another passionately. At that moment – mellow rock playing as I sipped on a comforting cup of coffee, surrounded by other university students – I had a realization. Although both coffeehouses like Pavement and coffee chains like Starbucks supply similar products, they couldn’t be more different. 

Image Credit: Nathan Dumlao 

Something about Pavement was special: I felt inspired by the environment and stimulated by the scent, decor, and overall atmosphere. This epiphany led me to realize that there is something unique and important about local coffee houses, and so I was inspired to dig a little deeper. I knew that my experience at Pavement was dramatically different than at Starbucks, but I wondered why, and did it even matter?

I decided to look up the history of coffee centers and was surprised by what I learned. Cafés and coffeehouses originated in Europe during the mid-seventeenth century and created an environment that allowed for the diffusion of Enlightenment culture. These social spaces were different than traditional taverns, which often got rowdy and obstreperous. Instead, cafés provided a social space that was open, yet remained calm and respectable. Most early coffeehouses, no matter where they were located, maintained literate and tranquil patronage. 

Image Credit: Michael Parzuchowski

The earliest customers were often elite and middle-class intellectuals referred to as honnêtes gens, who are responsible for morphing cafés and coffee houses into public spheres that encourage public learning and discussion. News about many topics, whether philosophical, religious, political, or literary, were discussed feverishly at the first coffeehouses. People flocked to cafés to chat, listen, inform themselves, and debate creative ideas. Such eateries also became literary spaces, where one could locate and read novels, magazines, and newspapers. 

After learning all of this information, I began to understand the difference between coffee chains like Starbucks, and local coffee houses like Pavement. Commercialized coffee chains have removed the intellectual experience that was once the foundation of cafés. However, local coffee houses are able to maintain this quaint nature, as they still foster a vibrant and social public sphere. Popping into coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts is no doubt the easiest way to get a cup of coffee if you’re in a rush. Yet, if you have the time to take a seat, I highly suggest you choose to purchase a cup of coffee at a local coffee house instead.

My experience was not only enlightening, inspiring, and lively, but also led me to the history of, passion for, and mystery around coffee houses that is distinct and delightful. 

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