I grew up in a pre-coffee shop universe. It seems almost impossible to believe now, but just as the internet was something you could access only when you’d been able to negotiate thirty minutes unfettered use of the phone line, there was a time and a place where your only hot beverage options were ‘coffee’, ‘tea’ or ‘hot chocolate’. You either drank them at a greasy plastic table, or from atop a frilly tablecloth, alongside a fruit scone served by a waitress in an actual uniform. Pret a Manger felt like a revelation when it first opened an hour away in Glasgow. The exoticism of a sandwich containing avocado was truly astounding to us poor proles from the provinces. And then, finally, the coffee chains reached those outer reaches of civilisation we called home, and suddenly there was somewhere that we could go as teenagers and just sit for hours, drinking liquified sugar.
But then came the years of staying up till 5am to meet essay deadlines, coupled with the lure of the interest-free student overdraft. My relationship with coffee intensified. I bought a cafetière. I moved to London and started working in the media, and suddenly it was deeply uncool to frequent chains of any kind. Plus by then I was consumed by the requisite liberal guilt over tax evasion, the demise of the high street, the ills of globalisation, et cetera, et cetera.
Recently I began spending five hours every Sunday writing in coffee shops. I fondly imagined myself studiously typing away in unique little cafés boasting artisanal roasts. And yet, a few weeks in, I have found myself most comfortable in the big chains.
Spoilt by choice the first week, I giddily flitted to three different places in turn, scrupulously buying a pastry and a hot drink in each. My wallet and my waistline couldn’t countenance this on an ongoing basis and so the following week the deliberating began. Having chosen an establishment, there’s then the etiquette of how much you must buy in each place in order to effectively rent your table there. My personal code dictates a purchase at least each hour, but still by the third hour I start to imagine the staff are shooting me cross glances. Then there’s the guilt at taking up a table with a lukewarm beverage when other people are searching for seats. And obviously amidst it all there’s the knowledge that you’re just one more pretentious twat typing away on their MacBook.
I was nervously negotiating all of this when I discovered a new coffee shop around the corner from my flat.Nestled underground like a hobbit hole, with baked goods enticingly arrayed in its windows, it was exceedingly charming – so much so that I entirely overlooked the sign – NO LAPTOPS AT WEEKENDS. I did notice the barista’s eyes twitching nervously down to my laptop bag as I ordered, but assumed she’d been abusing the free caffeine. I got as far as sliding it onto the table and sipping my decaf before she politely apprised me of their policy. She was lovely, and yet I nevertheless felt discomfited. I drank up and left.
Since then, it’s been chains all the way. The staff don’t care what I order and when. There’s plenty of seats and loads of other people sitting there for hours at a time. Breastfeeding means I have to limit my caffeine intake anyway, so the actual quality of the coffee doesn’t really matter to me right now. I do feel guilty about bypassing the independents, but those local to me seem so busy that by taking up a space for hours perhaps I’m doing them more harm than good. I’m sure there’s some happy medium I’ve yet to find – the small struggling café where nobody ever goes? – but it’s a relief to have a break from the angst and just focus on the writing. I’m considering trying the pub next, if I can ever get to grips with the protocol for that…