Coffee shops have certainly become more than a place to pick up a favorite drink. They are gathering spots for neighborhood residents and visitors. Each one has a different vibe. A varied venue can feel right on a different day. Often, they are the place to be solo together. Many cafes include a communal table which becomes a collective work space even when solo patrons are intensely working on individual projects.
A communal table is most often a long table that can seat 10-20 people. It often looks like what could have been a dining room table in an oversized old house that would seat several generations of an extended family at holidays. Just like in homes though, the dining room table becomes much more than a place for eating. School projects got laid out, homework help was found there, important papers got stacked up, and craft projects were assembled.
During this week between Christmas and New Year’s, I imagine the dozen people scattered at this communal table at our own sort of creative household working on projects of our choice, rather than tasks on deadline, because it’s a holiday week. There’s the artist sketching on a clean white pad with a pencil; the slim, grey bearded man with the white coffee mug reading through his notes on a tattered legal pad filled with his handwriting; the bald, bearded young man with the tallest of coffee drinks intensely reading off of his computer screen; the patron with a wool Gatsby newsboy hat keying a calculator maybe paying his monthly bills; the woman with the round glasses and big fur hat, that she never takes off, tinkering with elaborate graphic designs on her screen. The shooosh of the milk steaming machine, the barista calling out orders in the background, the muted conversations of the small groups at adjacent tables, all create a buzz of action.
I wonder if there is an unwritten rule at the long table that it is truly a study table, a quiet table, but I know that is just what happened today. I’ve had conversations with strangers at a similar table, just not this time. The sturdy, long tables at historic libraries have the same feel. Today is a day for individual progress. It feels like our community of working alone together creates some momentum to keep us each moving forward in our task at hand. Our intensity is contagious. Even reading a book becomes a mission at this table, a search for insight.
I go to the coffee shop, ironically enough, when I want to leave all the distractions in my apartment behind, when I want to focus on the thing I am doing, whether it is the current book I am reading or the first final draft of an essay. There are distractions at the coffee shop but they are often of others subtly pushing me along in my work because it just looks like they are getting so much done in their solo time. I never know if they were just as frustrated with their first draft as I was. But, get up, shake it off, get another coffee and keep going.
The best of coffee shops provide a combination of custom beverages, and often, a delicious selection of bakery or meal food. The cafe closest to my apartment is called “Chocolaterian, (www.chocolateriancafe.com ),” a dangerously addictive neighbor. It has become an extension of my personal space. Places like these coffee shops become our living room, a place for collaboration, even if it is simply creating the momentum of working solo together.