I write this sitting in my "other office," a bustling happy place which many people know as Bongo Java East, my local coffee shop. Working at home is great, but sometimes you just need to feel other people around, and the coffee shop fills that need for many of us. Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City took her laptop to her local coffeehouse to write, and the neighborhood coffee shop was the setting for many scenes in TV hits Friends and Frazier.
Coffee shops are "the other office" for many of us.
When I moved to Nashville from San Francisco, a top priority was to find a friendly and comfortable coffee shop where I could work every so often. Bongo Java East is perfect for me. It's an old warehouse with plenty of no-frills seating with heavy wood chairs and scuffed wood tables, with good coffee, tasty food, and a big metal coffee roaster in the back that can fill the neighborhood with the aroma of roasting beans. Outside, the smokers and dog owners chat while inside just about everyone is sipping their fresh-brewed organic fair-trade coffee and engrossed in work at their laptop using the café's free WiFi.
At one table, two men are collaborating on the design of what looks to be a record album cover. Next to them a man wearing headphones types intently, another blogger perhaps. A young punk girl has her laptop open next to a stack of textbooks, and another appears to be watching a movie. A man at the table next to me is using his iPad to order books on Amazon. Even the lone person reading a book is plugged in to her iPod. People come and go, sometimes solo, sometimes with business associates or friends, but the majority bring their laptops and work.
A graduate student friend tells me that she works much better than at home or at school, so she has a route of shops that she goes to, and she finds herself able to accomplish in a cafe than anywhere else. She's clearly not the only one.
Last week, I was sitting next to a table of six people who were co-creating a presentation for the nonprofit they work with. They were collaborating and putting everyone's ideas for an upcoming event into a laptop; by the time they left, their plan was in place. I'm entirely convinced that they could not have achieved as much as fast in any corporate conference room as they did in this friendly place with strong coffee and music in the background. And it's low overhead, with the only cost being a cup of coffee or tea.
Today, a young woman is working at the table next to me as she nibbles on a salad. I told her I was writing about the phenomenon of the coffee shop workplace, and asked her what she was working on. She smiled and introduced herself as Carrie Hanlin Churchill, the Director of Conscious Nashville, a new group focused on bringing positive change in lifestyle, wellness and creativity to Nashville. She has a home office, but says working in a coffee shop a couple of times a week helps her stay connected to the community-building aspect of her job, which uses technology to bring people together in real life. Time flew by as we talked about her work, my work, the people we both know, and the music scene in Nashville. We exchanged cards and information, and turned back to our writing on our laptops, our brief encounter creating a new connection that I have no doubt will be a good one for both of us. A few minutes later, a friend joined her at her table, got a cup of coffee, and opened her own laptop, and they worked in silence.
This wasn't how coffee shops used to be, or coffee itself for that matter. In my youth, the coffee shop was just a breakfast counter where the coffee was usually bitter and often burnt. There was nothing gourmet about it. At home, it wasn't much better, since the choice was percolated brew or instant coffee. Back then, coffee came ground in big metal cans from the grocery store, and our choices were mostly whether we wanted Maxwell House or Folgers.
The world of coffee began to change in 1966 when Albert Peet, who came to be known as the man who taught America how to drink coffee, introduced custom coffee roasting at his first coffee shop in Berkeley, California, Peet's Coffee (which remains my favorite brew). Soon after, he trained the founders of Starbucks in the art of coffee roasting, thereby spawning the biggest coffeehouse chain in the world (which later in turn acquired Peet's), and our repertoire of coffee drinks expanded to the point that stepping up the counter and ordering a "tall skinny dry vanilla latte depth charge" actually makes sense in some places.
We've sure learned to love our coffee, haven't we? Today there are boutique coffee roasteries popping up across the land, and if there's nothing local, you can always enjoy the flavor of Starbucks just about anywhere in the world. Bangkok alone has more than 80 Starbucks locations, with my all-time favorite inside a peaceful and elegant historic Thai-style wood house tucked up a walkway off of the bustling traveler's crossroads, Khao San Road.
Coffee has most definitively claimed its place in our culture, for its taste, for the caffeine-fueled energy it gives us (well, not so much for me, I switched to decaf many years ago), and now, for its contribution to a new kind of café culture and the backbone of the "other office" that so many of us have come to love.
Coffeeshops are part of how we conduct business now, and for the growing population of workers whose home office can feel a little lonely at times, that is a godsend. So a hearty thanks to the cafe owners who make sure we have plugs for our laptops and give us free wireless and let us stay as long as we need.
To you, I raise my decaf with milk and raw sugar and say, cheers!