In a coffee shop, and with her infant daughter snoozing at her elbow, a single mom — recently divorced, and struggling to make ends meet — writes a story about a boy wizard and an enchanted school. She writes in a coffee shop not for inspiration, but because she doesn’t have money enough to heat her apartment. Her story, of course, the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; the single mom, JK Rowling. I’m given to understand both mom and daughter are doing rather well, these days.
Rowling wasn’t the first author to take to the local coffee house — whether for warmth, or inspiration. Voltaire was an early coffee house patron, and he’s said to have tossed back between 50 and 72 cups a day (straying closer than most of us would dare to a lethal dose of caffeine) while writing works such as his fittingly frenzied Candide and Merope and his scathing Letters on the English.
It was a coffee house called Tillyard’s that was the unofficial home of The Royal Society — a clubby bunch who lunched and drank coffee and argued about alchemy — and ultimately published the collected works of their chair, one Isaac Newton. And in Austria you may be hard-pressed to find a coffee house that *doesn’t* boast of an author, poet or playwright who sat at that very table.
Given what passes for coffee house culture today, however, it’s remarkable that Rowling was able to pen a paragraph or two, much less a book empire. For all the lofty talk of the Third Place your chances of finding a Great, Good Place to write the Great American Novel are anything *but* great.1
John Scalzi skewered most any remaining romantic notions of coffee house writing in his 250-page epic snark — and one of my favorite reads of the year — You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop. And a clip from an episode of Family Guy making the rounds on YouTube doesn’t offer much hope, either. Still, you can’t keep folks from trying…
Of the countless coffee shops I’ve visited, I could probably count those that offered a viable third place on one hand. Which is a shame… and probably a factor of economics. Hard chairs, small tables and surfaces that echo (echo, echo…) tend to get customers in and out the door quickly. So maybe I’m not going to write my novel in a coffee shop. I can deal with that. But shouldn’t I be able to have a conversation?
What’s coffee house culture like in your corner of the world? Got a Great Good Place to share?
- Yeah, I know… the article talks about coffee shops in Scotland, and I reference the Great American Novel. I’m a fan of cognitive dissonance. [↩]