There are two* coffee shops in my neighborhood. One is Starbucks. I need say no more about that. The other is called Ipsento. It’s great. The coffee is local and delicious, the food is great, the staff is friendly, and the atmosphere is pleasantly low-key and bookish, or what I’d call “down-on-its-luck-used-bookstore chic.” It’s the perfect place to go with a friend on a winter’s day and drink good, strong coffee while engaged in pleasant nostalgia for grad school and intermittantly attempting to finally read that copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell you got for Christmas in 2004.
Much as I like Ipsento, though, I don’t go there very often. I cannot write there, and writing is the primary reason I visit coffee shops. You see, “down-on-its-luck-used-bookstore chic” means cozy and inviting and interesting, but it also means uneven surfaces and chairs that do not align properly with the tables, and also the distractions that come with being surrounded by humanity at its best. (This is not a complaint. I don’t want Ipsento to change. I just can’t write there).
Last time I was at Ipsento, typing away at my masterpiece while sitting at a chair five inches too short for the wobbly table next to it, two young hipster women at the table behind me were having an incredibly poignant, honest, and heartfelt conversation about “breaking up with your college boyfriend.” Part of me was impressed that two people under the age of 30 could discuss such a topic with such compassion and maturity. The other part of me wanted to turn around and shout, “I am trying to work here, but I can’t work, BECAUSE YOU ARE BREAKING MY HEART AND MAKING ME THINK DEEPLY ABOUT THE TRAGIC INCOMPATIBILITY OF TWO BEAUTIFUL YOUNG PEOPLE WHO CLEARLY LOVED AND CARED ABOUT EACH OTHER, BUT ENDED UP HURTING EACH OTHER BECAUSE THEY GREW APART AND THAT IS LIFE!”
Eventually the two women stopped talking, but within minutes a band showed up and began setting up for a live show. This was all too much. I finished my coffee and left, thinking, how am I supposed to write my brilliant art when other people are sharing their art in an attempt to entertain me for free?
I wandered back towards home, but still felt the nagging need to finish the chapter of the Mab story I’d started at Ipsento (Beatrice is trying to rescue Mab from an evil Santa Claus. As I said, masterpiece). So, I went to Starbucks. The place was packed, but it was silent. Nobody stirred, except the computer mice. The only sound was the hum of the air conditioner and the steady click-clack of fingers on laptop keys. Occassionally, someone would cough. The lively conversation and live music of Ipsento was gone, replaced by the cold blue glow of laptops and the grim faces of the people staring into that glow. I ordered a coffee and sat down at a table with a smooth surface. The chair was proportioned perfectly with it. I opened my laptop and began to write, peacefully, without distraction from anything so annoying as humanity. I finished the chapter. I felt very productive, and very guilty.
Ipsento and Starbucks embody the two kinds of coffee shops that exist in early 21st Century urban America. There is the coffee shop as it was meant to be, a cozy place to drink coffee and talk with friends, or read, or listen to music. A place to relax, to enjoy the slow life. Then there are places where every surface has a laptop on it and in front of that laptop is a person staring blearily at it.
Ask these people what they are doing and they’ll tell you they are “working.” Some are lawyers and accountants who take their work on the road. Some are graduate students for whom the leisure of distinguishing between “work” and “not work” has long been lost. Some are aspiring novelists, playwrites, and poets, with dreams of publishing contracts and blurbs from Jonathan Franzen dancing in their heads. All of them are actually just surfing the Internet.
I am often one of those people. If you see me at Starbucks, knowing Ipsento is just down the street, don’t judge me. I’m not there for the coffee. I’m there for the quiet and the even surfaces.
*There are actually three. There’s also a place called Red June just up the street from me. It’s quite good, but it closes at 4 pm every day, even weekdays, and thus is basically a coffee shop for Bucktown’s unemployed and independently wealthy.