Observations From A Coffee Shop – Latte or Cappuccino?

One of the joys of being retired is that I can loiter in coffee shops. I had this image in my head that it was what all ‘wannabe’ writers did. If I was going to write a bestseller, I needed to find a good coffee shop.  It worked for JK Rowling, why shouldn’t it work for me?

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally settled on my favourite place. Today I knew I’d been accepted when the young lady behind the counter smiled and said, “Same as usual?” I couldn’t help but smile as I settled down in my usual spot, a nice comfy sofa by the window, and took out my iPad. All I need to do now is write that blockbuster!

I didn’t realise that coffee houses have been around for so long. Apparently the first one in Britain opened in 1650 in Oxford. During the 17th & 18th centuries there were more coffee shops in London than there are today. Did you know that ‘tipping’ started in these coffee houses? If people wanted better service and a good seat they would put money in a jar labelled ‘To Insure Prompt Service’. They were used a lot by artists, intellectuals, merchants, bankers and political activists. They were often called ‘penny universities’ – it was said that, in a coffee-house,  a man could ‘pick up more useful knowledge than by applying himself to his books for a whole month’. A penny was the price of a coffee.

I’m not sure how many political activists or intellectuals are frequenting my coffee shop. While I am enjoying the activity I do get a little nervous in there.  I’m not sure what the etiquette is for coffee shops and ‘would be writers’? How long should I stay before I buy another coffee? Should I be taking up the whole sofa? Should I explain to the owner what I’m doing?

I find more and more that if I’ve got a question I can often find an answer through google! You would be surprised, or maybe not, just how many blogs and websites there are covering the thorny issue of ‘coffee shop etiquette’. Here are just a few of the suggested rules that I came across:

  • Remember it is a business, it is someone’s livelihood, so buy something at least every hour.
  • Tip well.
  • Try not to be noisy – put your mobile on vibrate & cut out the start-up noise on your computer.
  • Take up only one chair (not the whole sofa!) and try & sit at the smallest table.

In other words try to be as inconspicuous as possible in the hope that no one will notice you are there. Not like the 18th century coffee houses which were often crowded, smelly, noisy, feisty, smoke-filled places of creativity.



  1. Joanna K Neilson

    Firstly, this is an excellent post summarising the beauty of good, comfortable places to sit, drink coffee and let the creative places flow. It must be great to be able to relax in one for hours, but I love using them in my lunchbreaks or when I’m waiting for someone between work and an evening event.

    Great thoughts of the ‘etiquette’ of hanging out there, too. I often feel like the price of coffee is also there to rent the space where you work. I think the attraction is that it’s a neutral territory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place is an interesting concept which partly explains the popularity of Starbuck et al. I don’t like it when there’s nowhere to tuck yourself away, either, and during school holidays the big chains are impossible to get into if there’s a clock ticking.

    That said, In some ways it’s a real shame they’re no longer the creative dens of iniquity they were in the 1690s. Surely someone will spot that gap in the market?


    1. Mike

      Many thanks for your comments Joanna.

      I’m so lucky to have the time to sit around in coffee shops, writing, thinking and watching people and there world go by. This was something I could only dream about when I was working. As for school holidays – I tend to find somewhere else!

      Thanks for the link to the article about the ‘Third Place’. It fits in neatly to a lot of reading I did, in my final years as a Head teacher, around social capital. I see that Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone gets a mention. It’s a great read. The lack of social capital is having a massive negative impact on the education of our children – but don’t get me started on that!

      Like you I’m all in favour of a return to the 1690’s coffee shop dens of iniquity.


  2. Indigo Spider

    I’m in favor of returning to the 1690s coffee shop dens as well! Honestly, in today’s coffee shops, I don’t mind enjoying a coffee, meeting friends, but to actually sit and write in one I find too distracting. They are good places to people watch, grab snippets of dialogue, scribble notes and ideas, but not for delving into the deep writing of a novel! At least not for me. I’ve wondered how others can tune out and focus on crafting the plot, story, characters, etc., with all the hustle-bustle happening around them.


    1. Mike

      Thanks for commenting on this new addition to my blog.
      It seems a return to the 1690’s dens of iniquity is gathering support. Maybe we should think of starting a virtual one!
      I agree that coffee shops are great places to people watch and eavesdrop on conversations. I find I can tune out the hustle and bustle and concentrate on my writing when I want to ….. or maybe I’m just going deaf in my old age.


  3. Judee

    I think coffee shops of today, compared with those of yesteryear, are a sign of the times. You could probably do an article on Coffee shops through the ages and show how they reflect the epoch by what goes on in them. Somehow I don’t see myself writing in a Starbucks, but then, I never have been to a modern coffee shop, just European tea rooms (that also serve coffee). They’re still a bit old school.


    1. Mike

      Thanks for your comments Judee.
      I like the idea of finding out the different roles coffee shops have played through the ages – could be another post or two in that.
      I’m lucky that the coffee shop I’ve adopted is not one of the big chain ones but a small independent place. The staff are great, so is the coffee and I find it’s somewhere I enjoy writing.


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