I don’t really mean this as a metaphysical question. Recently, I have soured on the café as a venue for working. Despite—or perhaps because of—decades of addiction to caffeine, and despite a previously inveterate allegiance to coffee shops, from New York, to Cambridge, to Irvine, and even to the Palo Alto Starbucks at the corner of Stanford Avenue and El Camino Real, I now find myself propelled out of every such institution I enter almost as soon as I have stepped inside.
On a few recent occasions, I have thought that I would jostle myself from my routine and head out on the streets of Brooklyn in search of a venue for reading and writing. One place appeared promising and bestowed with a smattering of people seemingly engaged in similar kinds of activity. When I entered though, the agitated fingers tapping on tables rather than keyboards, the I-Pods sitting beside uniform Macs, and the flies making calculated dives at the customers quickly dissuaded me from staying. Most of my other such forays have met a similar fate.
Perhaps this souring on the coffee shop represents a more general phenomenon—just a couple of days ago, Starbucks announced a plan to close six hundred of its stores. Could the café be going the way of the chocolate house, a center of sociability in late seventeenth-century England? Starbucks and its kin seem under attack on at least two fronts. The yogurt craze that commenced in Los Angeles has hit the East Coast now, and places like Pinkberry offer light and airy spaces that promise treats at least supposedly more salutary than a mocha frappuchino topped with whipped cream. And, of course, wine bars may hold renewed appeal for those who pay attention to the reports of red wine’s seemingly miraculous longevity-enhancing powers.
But when, exactly, is it appropriate to work in a wine bar, and what kind of work can one do there? A lawyer friend of mine recently explained how convenient it was to be able to download books to his PDA, because then he could read at the neighborhood establishment without seeming anti-social. According to his account, it is almost always acceptable to consult a Blackberry or its equivalent, but not to bring actual reading material into a bar. So I was a bit surprised recently when walking by a wine bar in Manhattan on the Upper West Side to see someone perched at the window writing, with one hand poised on a glass. Taking heart from this image, and in need of occupying half an hour while waiting for an appointment, I walked in and placed myself on a nearby stool. At first, I furtively secreted my Westlaw printouts beneath the table, hoping the other occupants wouldn’t notice, but when two more women entered and appeared to be making the gestures of writing, I decided I could be more obtrusive about my activity. The experience was quite satisfying, and I concluded that I would definitely return. On my way out though, I looked more closely at what these other seeming Barbeiteren were doing—all three were filling out series of pastel cards in immaculate handwriting. Perhaps wine bars weren’t meant for law work after all….