Why Coffee Shops Aren’t Just Coffee Shops

You likely have witnessed this firsthand: coffeeshops are social hubs. Buying your morning coffee is a ritual that kickstarts your workflow, and because of this it becomes part of your personal orbit. I am obsessed with orbits, and by this I mean the journey from home to work to the “third place”, a community center where folks can go to hang out. Architect Victor Gruen thought that this third place would be the shopping mall, but I suspect that it has become the cafe.

As a community hub, this means that the cafe is a networking center. Which seems counter intuitive, because you don’t really shake hands and introduce yourself to people at cafes (that would be rude). However, you cultivate something one of my friends termed “ambient proximity”. Ambient proximity is exactly what happens in a cafe – when you work on your thing next to someone else working on theirs. This happens in libraries, at home, and at work. Simply by working in the same space as others, you become a fixture of that space, and incidentally a part of that community.

Let’s imagine you are a writer who can work from anywhere. You can work from home all the time, and yes you can establish connections via the internet but you will never cultivate ambient proximity because you are isolated. By going to a cafe or co-working space once or twice a week, you now belong to a large group of people that do the same.

There are a handful of benefits of being a cafe regular. One is that you establish social accountability by committing to being productive while in public. While at home you can say “fuck it” and spend an hour watching YouTube in bed, in a cafe you are surrounded by people who are working. Just being in that environment increases the likelihood you will stay on task.

It is hard to show a clear and tangible result of what happens when you become part of a community. You end up getting swept up into a different sphere of events, culture, and friends. This is why I am obsessed with orbits. Having an orbit means that you regularly do the same things in the same place with the same people. Shifting your orbit means that you change your life, even if you are in the same town. By going to cafes regularly, maybe you will notice job postings on the community board, or run into the same person again and again until you are acquaintances. There is nothing you really have to force about networking if your orbit is designed in a way that puts you in high touch with the people and opportunities you want.

This obviously isn’t unique to coffee shops. You can become a member of your library community, your apartment building, or your local smoothie spot. However, because cafes are synonymous with WiFi and beautiful spaces, they are often the best places we go to work or study with easy access to, well, stimulants and food.

Co-working spaces appear an attempt to capitalize on the coffee-shop culture. Co-working spaces are more exclusive, more expensive, and provide more resources for the folks who prefer to keep their office somewhere else. Because these spaces appeal to people who need more than what a cafe has to offer, I don’t see these buildings as competition to the cafe. A person who works in an office will still need a break to get coffee across the street.

All this being said, the best thing you can do (as a productive professional) is to include a regular dose of cafe patronage, just to be a part of the space beyond your home and work. The payoff is subtle, but integral to being part of modern day work culture.


The Gruen Effect https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-gruen-effect/

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