Coffee Culture: How to Celebrate the Human Mind

The life of the mind has a friend in modern culture: the coffee house. Sprinkled throughout college towns, dotted at the feet of financial-district high-rises, tucked away in the fashionable corners of middle-America hometowns, cafes wait to welcome the intellectual. Coffee has become more than the tool by which we force sleep from our eyes and focus to our brains; it has become the cultural-signpost of intellect.

The coffee house develops that black, bitter drink into an intellectual atmosphere. It offers quiet corners in which to concentrate and comfortable couches for the relaxed discussion of ideas. Bookshelves flank the couches, and magazines scatter the tables–the substance and product of thought, and its further stimulus. Artsy decor provides an environment friendly to intellectual values, and compare that laidback jazz/indie-rock mix to the blaring television of a sports bar. Even the barista behind the counter is a grad student working his way to a Ph.D. The coffee house is the only place in town where a $2.50 mochaccino buys 5 hours of study time, and the servers get friendlier the longer you hang about with your copy of The Undercurrent. In countless ways, the cafe provides the perceptual environment in which thinking best thrives.

The coffee house isn’t a new idea. It grew during the 18th century, as a philosophic spirit took root in Enlightenment civilization. In Paris, London, and Amsterdam, the cafe served much the same purpose as it does today. To quote The Economist, “the coffee-houses that began to appear in European cities…were adorned with bookshelves, mirrors, gilt-framed pictures and good furniture, in contrast to the rowdiness, gloom and squalor of taverns.” The Enlightenment middle class explicitly viewed coffee as a brain-stimulating alternative to liquor’s dulling effects. Merchants frequented coffee houses for news of their trade, authors read and discussed their work with coffeehouse critics, revolutionaries traded pamphlets and scientists demonstrated experiments to onlookers. Whatever your area of concern, if you were interested in the exchange of ideas, the coffee house was your social center.

So it is today–Americanized. Starbucks and its competitors have taken the European coffee shop model and brought it to middle America. Starbucks’ brilliant new retailing concept has taken the life of the mind and marketed it to the average American consumer. The forest-green mermaid has recognized that coffee fulfills a particular human need–the need to stay fully aware. She has developed a marketing scheme that consistently serves that need, through more than just the product it sells, and has created an entire coffee-culture that implicitly glorifies the mind. Scores of independent coffee shops have picked up the trend. It’s a pleasing spectacle, a great place to study, and the perfect first date.

If there is a downside to this tale, it is the question of to what extent the life of the mind is truly valued in modern American culture. The coffee-shop provides a spectacle of intellect, and yet men of the mind are so often ignored, or vilified. Who exercises reason? Who engages in the intellectual process?

Well, who drinks coffee?

The answer, of course, is everyone.

And everyone, in every job, from car mechanic to novelist to corporate executive, uses his mind to do his work. Everyone needs to focus on a problem–fixing a waterlogged engine, negotiating a tricky plot twist, or choosing a new product line–and use his knowledge and his reasoning faculty to solve it. This is not to say that everyone is an intellectual–in the sense of someone who professionally deals with ideas. It is to say that everyone engages in an intellectual process to live his life and conduct his work. We all need to use our minds.

That, in a nutshell, is why Starbucks is so blooming successful. Everyone has work of the mind to do, and thus everyone can gain from an environment that acknowledges it. The implicit message Starbucks sends to you when you walk in the door is: “The work you do is important and difficult. We appreciate that you need to be in top mental form to do it. Let us help to make your job a little easier.”

A little message like that can go a long way in circles where the tremendous intellectual effort required to do the job is too often scoffed at by the rest of society. I speak, of course, of the business world.

When those intellectuals who believe they have a monopoly on the name shun Starbucks in favor of Indie Coffee, they are shunning Starbucks as a symbol that the needs of the mind are mainstream. It is as though they are asking, “Who are those corporate rats to think that they can drink coffee? Who are they to take an Enlightenment symbol of intellect, commercialize it, and plunk it down on every corner of the financial district? That symbol belongs to us, not them.”

But they’re wrong. Starbucks’ needs-of-the-mind image is highly marketable to businessmen precisely because businessmen need to use their minds to such a high degree. Coffee does not belong only to the academics, or the artists, or the pure-scientists. It belongs also to the pharmaceutical industry, and to Wall Street. It belongs to engineers, advertisement agencies, computer nerds, movie producers, lawyers, retail-chains, and the kings of real estate. Coffee serves and represents these intellects as much as it does those in ivory tower; that their thinking is applied does not make it any less the work of the mind. When America realizes this, and loves Bill Gates along with Voltaire, the symbolic coffee-culture return to the Enlightenment (and to the Industrial Revolution which resulted from it) will become fully honest.

In the meantime, I’ll grab my laptop and head to Starbucks.

Rebecca Knapp is a junior at the University of Chicago. She is studying classics and plans to go to law school.

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