About once every couple of weeks, after dropping my daughter off at school, my husband and I head to our favourite coffee shop. It’s one of those increasingly rare and wonderful places. It is an independent, locally owned, friendly establishment that provides a comfortable, welcoming environment to while away an hour of so before plunging into the turbulent waters of the day. The room is filled with the smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns and just-roasted coffee. The walls are hung with an ever-revolving gallery of original, and sometimes edgy paintings, photographs, pen-and-ink drawings and sometimes sculptures created by talented local artists. The decor is as simple and unpretentious as a relative’s kitchen, with mismatched coffee mugs, hand-painted wooden furniture, wine bottles transformed into candle-holders, and creaky, battered hardwood flooring.
In contrast to the perfectly designed and demographically-engineered Starbucks located a block or so away, it’s a place where I feel at home.
It seems to me that comfortable and unique coffee shops and teahouses are amongst the civilized amenities that make every city and neighbourhood something truly special. They are the places where we gather with our friends to share the pleasures of conversation. They are the places, too, where we can go to enjoy some solitude and read a few pages of a book when time permits. The best ones, I believe, all have a little bit of character that’s completely their own. This one might be funky and shabby; that one might be avant-garde and elegant. The banana bread and coffee cakes they sell are just a little bit different from the shop that’s three streets away.
It is for this reason that I truly lament the relentless increase in corporate owned coffee houses, and the staggering number of people who seem willing to support these clones. Every time I see another one move into a neighbourhood, I reflexively cringe just a bit. Perhaps I’m naive, perhaps I’m judgmental, but it does seem to me that, all things being equal, we have what almost amounts to a moral obligation to support diversity in the face of the seemingly unstoppable march of the legions of sameness.
Certainly I feel an obligation, as a conscious consumer, to spend my limited dollars in a way that will ensure I have a continuous variety in my life. Is there anything inherently bad about establishments such as Starbucks? Certainly not. They provide good quality products and service in a comfortable atmosphere. But do any of us really want to participate in the creation of a city in which these establishments have become the only game in town?