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What is the Value of the Coffeeshop During COVID-19?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Mich chapter.

At the beginning of 2020, I was in Paris- alone on a study aboard that would abruptly end in mid-March. But I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was I felt lonely and I missed studying with my friends at Lab and getting Sweetwaters’ before class. To assuage my homesickness, I started searching for a good coffee place in Paris that wouldn’t charge me 6 euros for 6 oz of liquid. The only problem with my plan was that I didn’t drink coffee, and chai is just not as common in French cafés.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

But I took this adventure in stride. I ended up finding a coffee shop near my apartment called Coutume Café. The word “coutume” in French means custom or tradition. Creating my own tradition, I would sit at a tiny table by the door that never closed all the way and drink a weakly made chai while doing work. I overheard conversations between friends, business partners, and once even an English language teacher and her student. For a couple of hours, I could be around noisy people and not feel so alone. 

Sadly, when I had to leave, I was two cups away from a free drink on my punch card. I came back to Midwestern suburbia as everyone began hunkering down. Coffeeshops were not deemed essential, so many were shuttered. The culture shock of moving from a chaotic, cosmopolitan city to my quiet, childhood home was a lot to handle. Of course we were all scared, the news had nothing good to say, and every interaction with the outside world felt like a threat. Human interaction became a danger and places that facilitated it, like coffee shops, were sacrificed. Yet, I didn’t want to let my idealized vision of the neighborhood coffee shop go. So I tried to make do with what I had. I began making coffee drinks for my mom. 

Photo by Edwin Hooper from Unsplash
I would sit with her for half an hour every morning drinking tea while she worked and had coffee. Eventually, she got tired of trying my experiments and so I needed a new subject. My dad wasn’t interested in being my guinea pig so I took it upon myself and started drinking coffee. I made all kinds of drinks: iced maple cinnamon lattes, dirty chai from scratch, banana chocolate frozen coffees. My friends and I created a Snapchat group called “Bean Juice” where I would share my creations and we’d swap pictures of our daily cups. It didn’t replace the coffeeshop interactions per se, but in a bubble of loneliness and fear, again, coffee helped me cope.  

A cup of coffee can be a very political image. The Starbucks mermaid, for example, is a symbol of the globalization of Western corporations much like the golden arches of McDonald’s. Coffee bean production is fraught with questions of ethical sourcing and the treatment of laborers farming those beans. The cost of a cup of coffee is a common metric to gauge the level of inflation and buying power of currency. Even in the past, coffee was political. Coffeehouses across Europe were a source of political debate, so much so that French conservatives sought to regulate them because they were perceived as dangerous, leftist gathering places. Coffeeshops now are subjects of the debate on gentrification in cities, large and small. When residents in lower-income areas see a “third-wave” coffee shop open up, they know what’s coming. It’s a reputation that is difficult to shake as coffeeshops attempt to remain Instagram-worthy while also navigating the changing class and race divisions of the neighborhoods they may find themselves in. Not everyone can spend more than $5 on a cup of coffee, especially in a tighter financial market where it’s estimated that 30 to 40 million Americans may be evicted because they cannot pay their rent. Coffeeshops and coffeeshop goers have had to reckon with the negative impact their actions have on building ethical communities.

In many places across the United States, coffee shops are still closed except for takeout. In Ann Arbor that isn’t the case, but it comes are the cost of wearing a mask, avoiding the bathrooms, and worrying the surfaces you’re touching may have been contaminated by someone less careful that you. Recently, I went to the new Sweetwaters’ in the Union to try and feel some semblance of the comfort I once felt in a coffee shop. There were students filtering in and out, the atrium was beautiful and, aside from the occasional fog on my glasses thanks to my mask, I felt slightly reconnected to my fellow students and the university environment. There was a power in the distanced, communal act of leaving our individual houses to exist in a common space together, even though gathering in such ways posed a heightened risk.

Later in the week, I received the email from President Schlissel which included the new COVID-19 numbers, measuring a spike of 272 cases as of the second to last week of September. It was a stark reminder of the trade-off I had made when choosing to return to a densely populated area like Ann Arbor and go into community spaces like the Union. The idealized vision I had of returning once a week became filtered through future risk assessments that I would have to make as campus COVID-19 numbers fluctuate. But I refuse to give up on it entirely and from my anecdotal observations, many others do too. With so many customs rightly cast aside for safety, any compromise asked of me in an attempt to preserve some aspects of coffeeshop culture is welcome. So, as we near midterms, when holing up in a café, buzzing on 3+ cups of bean juice is a college tradition, I may not be participating in the ritual like I once did. However, I will happily stand outside of Lab before I sit down to write a paper at home waiting for my lavender latte, 6 feet apart from other customers also trying to create a new normal out of the current reality we are in.

Sara is a feature writer for Her Campus. She is a senior at the University of Michigan, studying French, Art History and Political Science. She is interested in international law and competes on the University of Michigan's Mock Trial team. In her free time, Sara explores Ann Arbor looking for new foods, specializing in tacos and noodles. She loves immersing herself in a good book from Literati and traveling to learn about different cultures. Sara loves the feeling of walking around a city with nowhere to go, headphones in, observing the hustle of everyday life. If Sara could do anything in the world, she woud be a travel and fashion writer exploring with a camera, a journal, and an empty stomach.