by Michael Penn
If I think back to 1995, I can remember some great conversations and debates in and around Center City Philadelphia’s coffee shops. I can recall several within a square mile that I frequented that were consistently full of patrons buying coffee, tea, lunch or a snack. They were there simply taking an hour out of their day to enjoy the scenery and ambiance.
There might have been one computer, rentable by the half-hour, stuffed in a corner somewhere, with dial-up so slow that your half-hour rental would only allow you to read your four pieces of email if you were lucky. And speaking of luck, if you were lucky enough to own a laptop, there was no free Wi-Fi to tap into. You were probably writing and saving documents or playing solitaire.
Newspapers, magazines, books, sketch/doodling and conversation were the lifeblood of the coffee shop. There was ambient music playing loud enough to hear but not loud enough to disturb. And even though some of these long-gone establishments, like Old City’s Quarry Street Cafe, South Street area’s Java Company and the Last Drop Coffee Shop at 13th and Pine Streets, would be busy, you rarely had to jockey for a table. Outside of Center City, Chestnut Hill was the next popular destination for drinking coffee and the same rules applied.
One small fact shouldn’t be ignored: Coffee shop customers were thought of as “weirdos.” They were the creatives, the eccentric, and those fortunate to kill an hour or two, paying too much for a cup of coffee, doing nothing but enjoying life in the middle of the day when everyone else was at work. People thought I was crazy for spending $2 for a cup of coffee, something most people were grabbing for under a dollar in a paper cup.
Today, the true coffee shop experience has changed. First, sitting down for a cup of coffee after 7 p.m. has become next to impossible, unless you’re a fan of big corporate chains like Starbucks or Wawa.
The primary problem is that coffee shops today have become makeshift study halls or co-office working spaces. People purchase a bottle of water or small coffee and then sit for hours enjoying free WiFi, complementary electricity to charge devices and occupying seating like an invading force.
In the ’90s, if a person spread work papers and multiple devices on a table that seats four, virtually turning it into an office, not only would it result in mounting pressure from paying customers and severe side eye from everyone in the cafe, but an owner or manager would explain to the customer the limits to the establishment’s hospitality. It was just unacceptable behavior.
And there it is, possibly. Hospitality. Businesses are now pressured by online rants and reviews and feel obligated to comply with whatever demands its visitors might have. “The customer is always right” is indeed, back in style. Except there’s one problem: Businesses seem to be empowering those that do not have the business’s best interests and investments in mind.
Coffee shops now breathe an air of anti-socialism, recognized the moment you enter. You’re likely to be glanced at as if you’ve just trespassed into each inhabitant’s personal space.
It’s readily accepted in the metropolitan areas where there are still options for places to go, but becomes very obvious the further you travel into the neighborhoods and suburbs where venue choices become slim.
Chestnut Hill is a great example, and the further up the hill you go, the more obvious this practice becomes. At one of my longtime favorite spots, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve purchased a cup of “the best” soup and latte only to find no place to sit. Close to $20 in food and beverage can’t even guarantee you a table because of the laptop army. People barricading themselves with personal belongings to send a passive-aggressive message of “stay away.”. Some have called this “Millennial Spreading,” but most of us just call it being rude and self-absorbed.
The second floor to my longtime favorite, Chestnut Hill Coffee Company, mimics a library when there’s an actual library one block away. Often, it resembles a co-working space like Kismet on Willow Grove Avenue, where a floating desk rental costs about $350 a month.
Music is no longer played, and the silence is deafening when you are meeting a friend for lunch, coffee and conversation. I mean, it can really make one uncomfortable when crunching one of the area’s best toasted bagel. Just trying to have a conversation with a friend can earn you a dirty look or a literal shush. It’s happened to me and my party a few times. And yet, strangely enough, cell phone usage doesn’t seem to faze anyone. Most of the offending squatters have a laptop (sometimes two), a tablet and a phone all at once, and sometimes the only sound you’ll hear is keyboard clicks or the battle for an electrical outlet. Business is apparently booming … for some.
I have politely asked, on occasion, to share a table or window counter. What usually results is no visual or verbal acknowledgment, except for maybe a barely audible huff and puff, while the person frantically collects his items. Trying to get him to put his shoes back on and off the furniture is another situation, but usually, these people are gone in five minutes. They seem to take it personally. They display all the signs of frustration, defeat and violation. Their exit is usually accompanied by one last audible huff of aggravation.
Keeping areas quiet and the power flowing freely enables those taking advantage of the hospitality to keep doing so. It’s well understood that you can please some of the people some of the time, and if the owners are content with the way things are, I’d like to encourage them to question if it’s sustainable. I’d like to encourage them to reconsider the seating arrangements for those who wish to set up camp and conduct business throughout the day.
Perhaps we can return coffee shops to the way they were, when the point was actually coffee and conversation. Let the laptops find space in the library. Let us have our coffee in a place where we can enjoy it.
Michael Penn is a Chestnut Hill resident and professional photographer.