Thursday, February 26, 2009

Somerville's Cafe Culture (Somerville Journal)

Brociner: Somerville’s cafe culture
By Ken Brociner
Thu Feb 26, 2009, 12:40 PM EST

Somerville - Somerville has so many cafes/coffeehouses that many people living in our city probably haven’t even heard of half of them — which is too bad because practically all of them have their own unique style and flavor.

I really only started to hang out at cafes about 10 years ago when I became a daily regular at Carberry’s, which was located just outside of Davis Square in the same building where Green Tomato is today. A wonderful little subculture developed at Carberry’s in those days. The same people usually showed up at the same time each day. And even if it only involved a friendly smile or wave of the hand, most of the regulars acknowledged each other with a warm familiarity. Of course, many people went beyond that and developed lasting friendships. To this day, I still miss the little world that existed inside that oddly shaped building with all of those windows looking out onto Elm Street.

The history of cafes and the different roles they have played in society varies far and wide. Going back hundreds of years, cafes in both the Middle East and in Europe were known for their literary clientele. One image that comes to mind is that of the great writer hunched over his papers with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a steaming cup of coffee lying next to his manuscript in-the-making. Another common image of cafes is that of a group of intellectuals sitting around a table and passionately discussing the great issues of the day.

Here in the U.S., cafes mostly go back to the 19th century when they first became popular as pastry-centered coffee houses run by Italian immigrants. In the 1950s, coffee houses were especially popular with beatniks, poets and folk singers in such places as Greenwich Village and Berkeley. Then in the ’60s, countercultural youth and activists in the movement against the war in Vietnam embraced cafes as places to come together and build a sense of community.

Over the last 20 years or so, the Starbucks chain has come to dominate the coffee house culture in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in other countries as well. But here in Somerville, while we do have a couple of Starbucks (and I will confess that I spend a lot of time at the one in Davis Square), we also have many excellent independently owned cafes.

But the Starbucks phenomenon is no longer the dominant trend in contemporary café culture. An altogether different factor has rather abruptly entered coffee houses from Seattle to San Francisco to Somerville. The laptop. I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to predict that if you could somehow peer into every coffee house in America at any given time of the day or evening, somewhere in the neighborhood of half the people sitting there with a cup of coffee would also be intently pounding away on a laptop.

Maybe it’s because I don’t even own one, but when I walk into Starbucks, the Diesel or Common Grounds (in Ball Square) and I see one person after another sitting alone and glued to their laptops, I find it slightly alienating. I guess that’s because I get the feeling that along with their laptops, many people also have put up invisible bubbles around themselves with captions that read “hard at work, please leave me alone.”

Perhaps it’s just a generational thing. For better and for worse, I have never felt nearly as comfortable with electronics as most young people do these days (and it’s mostly young people who populate Somerville’s café culture). While I realize that an objective observer could see that same “leave me alone bubble” hovering over someone deeply engrossed in a book or newspaper, I can’t help feeling that a laptop acts as more of a “privatizer” than a book might.

Of course, there really isn’t anything wrong with going to a coffee house and wanting some time to sit alone and work, read, or just plain reflect on one’s life or the state of the universe. I would heartily agree that the right to do so and to be left alone while you are enjoying your private space is one of the most important attractions of cafes to begin with. And in all honesty, this is what I personally find so appealing about hanging out in a coffee house.

However, cafes are better places when you get the feeling that people in them leave the doors to their little worlds at least slightly ajar for a brief conversation or a quick remark. From time to time, I have taken a bit of a risk and have politely asked someone sitting nearby questions like, “Excuse me, but do you mind telling me what you are working on?” Or simply, “Is it a good book”? Invariably, I find that people greet such interruptions in a friendly way — especially if they know you aren’t trying to engage them in a long conversation — although sometimes, when both parties are obviously interested in keeping such interactions going, lengthy conversations do occur.

Being more open to meeting “strangers” in cafes is a wonderful way to build more of a sense of community here in Somerville. It’s also a way for people to come together and try to make sense of an all too bewildering world. So the next time you visit your favorite café, try putting that laptop or book aside for a few moments and ask your neighbor a friendly question. You may very well be surprised by how much you can learn from the person sitting right next to you.

Ken Brociner is a regular columnist with the Somerville Journal.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's actually "True Grounds" in Ball Square, not "Common Grounds".

5:01 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

You are so right! Thanks for pointing that out.

6:19 PM  

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