The cafe: cornerstone of civilization

A friend of mine once joked that I was the Chocolate Claim's "writer-in-residence." Actually, I think he was only half-joking. True, I was there most days for my late-afternoon java, but it wasn't an indulgence.

A friend of mine once joked that I was the Chocolate Claim’s “writer-in-residence.”

Actually, I think he was only half-joking. True, I was there most days for my late-afternoon java, but it wasn’t an indulgence. And it wasn’t only about the hit of caffeine. As someone who usually works alone, I needed to know the world was still out there. More than that, I needed to be in a social space – a space for spontaneous engagement, creative conversations, and imaginative possibilities. Today, cafes have become the equivalent of the public square.

I’m no doubt influenced by having lived in Europe, where – especially in the south – people flow in and out of cafes all day. When I travelled with my sister and her family in France four years ago, my brother-in-law was told in no uncertain terms by a woman in a cafe that “We don’t do take-out coffee here.” She was being rather snotty; still, I gave silent thanks to the French, fighting a rearguard action against our North American tendency to drink our coffee on the run.

In fact, there’s a much more fundamental role at stake here. That daily opportunity to sit among fellow human beings, to relax, talk, argue, is vital to the free flow of ideas and knowledge. In a corporatized world, where spaces for citizens (as opposed to consumers) are increasingly imperilled, that role is nothing less than the maintenance of public space, the recognition of the importance of a public sphere.

The very architecture of European cities fosters such social interaction, with public squares usually built around an ancient church. The largest squares often feature cafes on all four sides, their tables thronged with people talking, reading newspapers, watching the world go by. Not so long ago, in rural Canada, the local post office fulfilled a similar function – even if postmistresses weren’t supplying government-approved jolts of caffeine.

But many of those post offices have been shut down, with nothing to replace them. Certainly not the nearest mall, whose purpose is to encourage consumption, not conversation. Which isn’t to say, of course, that social connection doesn’t take place there. But in a mall you’re surrounded by things, begging to be purchased.

Cafes are among the few places that allow for conversation with no agenda. Their more intimate and comfortable space encourages people to sit down and talk in a more sustained way. They foster relationships and deepen the sense of community. In a cafe you can set aside your other roles – employee, mother, husband, sister, son, consumer – and participate in public life as pure citizen.

It’s no accident that the growth of cafes in North America has coincided with the encroachment of the corporate sphere on the public and private. Even Starbucks, that corporate chain-cafe, offers a place in which to engage with others, or simply sit in their anonymous company. Tiny Whitehorse has two Starbucks, two Tim Hortons, and at least six independent cafes – a large number for a population of 25,000.

The German sociologist Jurgen Habermas argues that civil society itself began in the first coffeehouses. Habermas views them as public spaces outside of control by the state, and traces their origins to 18th-century Europe, especially Britain. The culture of the public sphere emerged there around 1700 and then expanded throughout continental Europe. In England, coffeehouses were nicknamed “penny universities.” The writer Jonathan Swift said he was “not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House.”

The beginnings of the French Revolution, in fact, can be traced to the meetings and conversations that took place in coffeehouses. “It was at the Cafe de Foy, eyed by police spies while standing on a table brandishing two pistols, that Camille Desmoulins roused his countrymen with his historic appeal -‘Aux armes, citoyens!’- on July 12th, 1789,” says The Economist. The Bastille fell two days later. A French historian has claimed, poetically, that those coffeehouse habitues “saw, with penetrating glance, in the depths of their black drink, the illumination of the year of the revolution.”

In North America, the rise of the cafe can be linked to the sixties generation, who took advantage of cheaper travel and hitchhiked en masse throughout Europe. Those young travellers brought back a taste for espresso and its accompanying social life, along with Italian names for the cafe’s key elements – cappuccino, latte, barista.

Coffee culture, some might argue, has become overfetishized. Nevertheless, the meaning of the word “cafe” itself is changing to reflect its enlarged role. It can also refer to “a small informal public discussion,” according to Wikipedia. “These are usually live events, and often focus on starting an open conversation on a particular topic.”

These cafes have also gained an online presence and become global networks. Cafe Scientifique, for example, describes itself on its webpage ( as a place “where you can have a drink and learn about the latest ideas and issues in science and technology in an informal setting. It’s not a lecture! It’s a place for group discussion, and audience involvement is the most important ingredient.”

The first Cafes Scientifiques were held in the UK and have since spread around the world. Participants hear scientists or writers on science talk about their work and discuss it with diverse audiences. “We are committed,” says Cafe Scientifique, “to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.”

The World Cafe, by contrast (, developed as a process designed to promote deeper conversations rather than as a specific subject area. Its techniques are now used by individuals, groups and organizations to discuss areas of interest and concern in their community, and to formulate ideas for action.

As the venue of the cafe and the activities that take place there linguistically merge, we need a new word to describe its evolution. A word that recognizes the cafe’s revitalized and essential role in the public sphere. A “coffee-sation,” perhaps? A “cafespace”? The French, as usual, have a word for it: “espace vital,” meaning sufficient space in which to live. Exactement!

Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s essay, Aiding and Abetting: Izzy and My Political Education, will appear in the fall issue of the New Quarterly (available on newsstands shortly). Her column appears on the last Friday of each month.