Cafe Society and Sociability: a Shared Project – 3

Some papers have long periods of gestation as other projects sidle by. This belated new post yields more background material. It outlines two typologies: of (a) the material and (b) the social spaces of contemporary cafes in London and elsewhere. These set parameters for the ongoing discussion of virtual as well as actual relations. They will see the light of day shortly in my contribution to Café Society, co-edited with fellow café addict Aksel Tjora and due to be published by the New York office of Palgrave Macmillan.

The typologies comprise Weberian ideal types, and ideal types are analytic constructs: in other words, they are not amalgams of actually existing examples, but rather purposive, second-order characterizations pertinent to the sociological matter under discussion.

(a) Material spaces

Nine types of café are identified here:

  • the transport café (or caff) in London and other urban locales may have had its heyday in the 1950s but it endures, coffee increasingly rivalling tea as the drink of choice; nor is instant coffee as predominant as it was. The caff is a daytime social institution, opening and closing early, its prices modest, catering for the transient, the manual working-classes and what Paul Higgs and I once called their ‘displaced segment’ (in order to avoid using the term ‘underclass’). It is a paradigmatic stopping-off point.
  • the independent café is intent on survival: resisting the brands of Starbucks and its protégés, it has become a brand that challenges branding. This is a tradition defying the fabricated re-branding of the traditional. Heir to the provincial tea shop, it is archetypically a family concern, dependent on a mix of long-term regulars and customers either nostalgic for a receding past or uncomfortable with the present and the hyper-commercial, consumerist future they see unfolding. Contemporary economic orthodoxy fears for the independent café.
  • the specialist café offers excellence. Excellence here implies an authentic, positive, defiant project, a head-up challenge to back personal taste. These stand-alone cafes are often seen by their customers as modern oases in the desert of the postmodern. Noted for their ambience, they are redolent of modernity’s staid, elitist ‘high’ culture in an era of dynamic hybridity and branded difference.
  • the incidental café comprises bars, hotels and restaurants and accents space rather than place. Coffee is an afterthought, an extra, a secondary and generally cheap option tagged onto an individual’s primary activity: to eat, consume alcohol or spend the night. It is coffee drinking in a place which is a non-place, having no properties exclusive to or characteristic of coffee consumption.
  • the store café, often franchised, offers brief respite to those indulging in the archetypical postmodern practice of shopping. In this contemporary sense, shopping, especially in those islands of aspirational consumerism, malls, is less a functional necessity than a chasing of dreams and fantasies. Aspirational consumerism, promiscuous consort of a rhetoric of choice, can be seen sociologically as embedded in a class-motivated culture-ideology of consumption (Scambler, 2007).
  • the bookstore café, also typically a franchise, is a store café with a difference: it caters predominantly to the declining minority who read, browse and sometimes purchase books. In some respects it is a third place or public forum in waiting. The ethos readily found in the USA, permitting students of all ages to carry piles of reading matter to consult over a coffee or three, alone or in dialogue with their peers, regardless of the risk of spillage and despoilment, is gradually being accommodated in London and other of Europe’s university cities.
  • the internet café epitomizes the postmodern world of instant global communication. These ‘network nodes’ offer seating and a coffee and access to the technologies of talk and chatter, a pre-paid chance to check emails, polish a powerpoint presentation, consult a contractor, send a kiss, and reassure parents that everything is okay even if the money is running out. It is a place of virtual dealings and relationships.
  • the travellers’ café caters for people who have been apprenticed to need transit stops and transit pick-me-ups or diversions, caffeine in a polystyrene beaker, whether at Heathrow destined for the USA or Wimbledon en route to Dorking; or indeed waiting for a bus to anywhere. Coffee here fills a gap: it is a prop, an adult’s comfort blanket, something to do while nothing needs doing.
  • the chain café is epitomized by Starbucks, since imitated by a score of ambitious offspring. All the brands are here, as is the facility to confess to – and commodify – sins committed. Charges and critiques challenge less extant practices than the business capacity to re-brand these practices. Every coffee bean seems destined to retain its innocence, sown, nurtured, processed, set before the coffee lover with an irresistible mix of altruism and compassion (but see Wright, 2004).

There is of course movement between these categories. Moreover, Starbucks has ‘seen off’ many an independent, store, bookstore and travellers’ café. But, the contention here runs, there is an amalgam of place and space in this typology, a material substratum, which informs and buttresses the much more pertinent business of café usage to which I now turn.

(b) Social spaces

There exists no one-to-one correspondence between the material and social spaces comprising cafes. Bestselling treatises, creative dialogue and sharp deals can reach their conclusions in caffs or store cafes, and job interludes or moments of rest from bodily fatigue enjoyed in the domains of the incidental or bookstore café. It is this spirit that the typology of café usage is ventured:

  • The person who visits a café to observe, le flaneur, is an elusive, composite, semi-heroic character, a bequest from Baudelaire and Benjamin’s musings on the emergence of 19th century Paris as a modern city. He, and it was a ‘he’, was most at home among the elegant Parisian arcades, on the very cusp of their displacement by ‘a more strictly regimented topography’ (to quote Coverley). He symbolized the rise of the modern amidst the debris of the old, a nostalgic figure personally bound up with the passing of the familiar. He was the embodiment of the dynamic city, what Solnit calls the ‘patron saint of cultural studies’. In London at the start of the 21st century it is more difficult to distinguish between le flaneur and one of his, or now her, successors, the ‘stationary traveller’. Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes in Huysmans’ A Rebours affords a role model. Walking the streets is rejected is favour of ‘mental travel’: his flaneury is thoroughly domesticated, an exercise of the imagination from the comfort of an armchair. This transmutation of le flaneur provides a benchmark for café usage. In 21st century guise, he or she remains the wry, semi-detached observer of city life and personnel, but now the café stool, chair, even armchair, provides the observation point.
  • Le flaneur is not relaxed, cannot but observe. Those who visit cafes to relax, to take a deep breath and the weight of their feet, to recoup, only observe fortuitously. Their intent is an honest and straightforward one: they are en route, making an incidental and frequently unplanned stop to refuel, pausing in malls at shoppers’ rests, purchasing fried breakfasts between jobs at caffs, or, more literally, calling in at chains at motorway stops while driving from A to B, reaching B being the overriding objective.
  • Increasingly in cities like London cafes are places to deal, to do business, sites where colleagues can agree agendas and allocate tasks or where fresh deals can be struck. Good or bad news can be conveyed over a tall cappuccino. The territory tends to appear neural, defusing relations that might otherwise be fraught. ‘Marks’ can more easily be ‘cooled out’ in cafes.
  • People also visit cafes to socialize. Sociability can be pursued for its own sake or for its potential to oil wheels or deliver outcomes unrelated, or even antagonistic, to work. The gathering of people who are like-minded or have interests in common is another types of café usage. London has witnessed a spread of coffeehouses to cater for specific religious or ethnic groups, affording a bounded sociability. It is this category of usage too that best fits Oldenburg’s notion of third places or, more ambitiously, a would-be enabling sector of civil society. It is a form of usage of political import: acorns in the enabling sector occasionally give rise to oaks in the protest sector. Clayton (2003) prophecies renewed vigour and influence for cafes as third places in 21st century London.
  • Cafes can also provide a refuge, a solitary and secluded corner in which to bury oneself, a means to escape. In this case usage is non-social and defensive, carrying none of the offensive third place potential for organizing or resisting change. The café is a place of escape, offering a barrier between a hassled self and a transitory or generically hostile or threatening social world.
  • Returning to a café to get a fix implies more than a passing need for caffeine, solitude or seclusion. It is the addiction of l’habitue. The will has surrendered to a routine. Replete with props – local newspaper, weekly magazine, puzzle book – the drinker subsides with a practised sigh of relief. It is usage characterized by ritual: visits occur at the same time every day, with the same greeting, seat occupied and drink ordered. In this familiarity of the neat and predictable is loneliness accommodated and, maybe, what Giddens calls ‘ontological insecurity’ held at bay. It invokes Aksel Tjora and I have called a ‘familiarity bond’.
  • Going to a café to work can be a deliberately solitary activity, if associated with a project-oriented, positive rather than negative mind-set. Writers are prime examples, and almost any café can suffice; specific books or articles may even be associated with particular material spaces, even tables. Sometimes what appeals is working, cut-off by a steady act of will, against a background of hustle and hubbub. These words were drafted next to a table of lunching women, a lively knitting circle swapping stories in Foyles’ bookstore café in Charing Cross Road.
  • This same café on Foyles’ first floor hosts jazz events, the last one I attended marking the publication of Julie Blackburn’s biography of Billie Holliday. So another usage is to entertain. Others cafes too win their clienteles by offering entertainment, typically of a predictable genre. Talks, debates, poetry readings and music of every caste and description have homes in cafes. Each attracts its connoisseurs and devotees.
  • Last but not least come the thirsty and hungry, those who simply seek replenishment via a cappuccino, bacon and egg sandwich or bag of salted peanuts or crisps. The need here is corporeal not mental: the function is to refuel the better to press on with the tasks that lie ahead.

It bears repetition that (1) there is no easy correspondence between the material and social spaces that comprise London’s contemporary cafes; and that (2) individuals – with the possible exception of l’habitue – can and do make multiple uses of cafes: the switch from socializing to observing and back again can occur almost instantaneously. Re-written as a matrix, the material and social ideal types outlined here (9 x 9) identify 81 cells. Few of these have been subject to study, perhaps surprisingly given the vigorous American chain-led resurgence of public coffee consumption towards the end of the 20th century. These are ubiquitous material spaces of daily salience to growing numbers of London’s citizenry; but they have precipitated neither a micro-sociology of social encounters or sociability nor a macro-sociology of the café as a possible third place successor to the old politicized English coffeehouse. It is macro-sociology that provides the focus in the paragraphs that follows.