Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Idea of the Coffee House

I made a coffee house, it must be, because I love coffee. But more than this, I am fond of people, and enjoy the countless opportunities for human interaction it brings.

Our coffee house occupies a sort of promontory, jutting out into the broad concourse of Brushfield Street, a boulevard connecting the City with the East End. We overlook historic Spitalfields Market; hence our name. But, beyond this, many of our customers work in the financial markets. At its best it's a busy social hub: personal, intimate, sometimes funny, always friendly, and not much that happens around here, it seems to me, escapes our notice.

Our staff know each regular customer by his or her coffee choice, and will be getting this ready even before they get to the head of the queue. One customer (decaff latte, no sugar), a thin slip of a girl with a mane of blonde hair and always a ready, demure smile, turns out unexpectedly to be a powerhouse of business, and owner of a chain of local Japanese restaurants. One day I even caught her in conversation, in fluent Japanese, over two of our very English cream teas, apparently signing up a new chef.

One morning I was joined at the counter by a local man, a musician, and we chatted happily about the music festival at Christchurch, at the end of our road. From the edge of my vision, as we stood speaking, waiting for his takeaway coffee (large latte, no sugar), I could just make out a tuft of white shirt poking out from the unzipped flies of his dark suit trousers.

With superhuman effort, I managed to conclude the conversation with my head and eyes dead level. I accompanied my friend to the door. Just before parting, I clasped his arm and whispered: "There's something I've got to tell you. Your flies are undone. It's best if you know, to save embarrassment later."

Will I see this customer again in my shop? Or will delicacy of feeling send him to Starbucks, or some other coffee joint in our road? Only time will tell. Still, I suppose I did the right thing. Didn't I...?

I have been reading a history of the coffee house recently*, given me by my friend Jim Howett, an American antiquarian and furniture designer. The author relates how Samuel Pepys used coffee houses to cultivate the acquaintance of influential people in seventeenth century London. These places crackled with energy. He found men furiously transacting business and exchanging political ideas. He also made illicit assignations with women. From what I've seen, not so much has changed these three hundred years or more.

When ABN Amro, in their handsome new building at the top of our road, gave every appearance of fast disappearing down some investment banking plughole, we had a ringside seat. Traders came in and confided their woes over frothy cappuccinos, at a safe distance from the company canteen. One customer asked to use our upstairs flat to pitch, undisturbed, for a new job. Another returned from his honeymoon to find his whole department shut down, and empty desks stretching out across the trading floor. "They've sacked all the good people," he told us, grinning broadly, "and left themselves with rubbish like me."

Hiring and firing was always a popular pastime at the Market Coffee House, as is eavesdropping, a guilty pleasure for owners of premises like ours the world over. We've known the excruciating agony of seeing a friend and neighbour, a fund manager having a bumpy ride in the markets, getting roughly dismissed by his boss before our very eyes. We've seen managers interviewing eager new applicants day by day, each time with the same weary, repetitive phrases. Little start-up businesses dig themselves in among the Windsor chairs and creaky gate-leg tables of our cafe, crackle and fizz with energy for some few weeks, then slip away into extinction.

There's a sprinkling of political caricatures on the walls of our coffee house, mainly old Spectator covers. Most people notice the brilliant one of Blair, bare-arsed and brandishing a missile, and strangely conclude the proprietor must be left-wing. I adore the notion of the coffee house as an arena for impromptu, informal, educated debate. On the day of the recent mayoral election, which revived at last, for me, some of the fun and excitement of politics, I clashed politely with a loyal, unswerving adherent to Ken. When next I saw him (takeaway cappuccino), I duly apologised for Boris's victory. "I don't suppose it was just your vote," he told me, coyly smiling.

Sometimes there is too much information. The informality and supposed anonymity of our place rather loosens peoples' tongues, sometimes to their detriment. Someone once told us how he bet his shirt on the price of oil going down at $90 a barrel. We haven't seen him since. (I guess he lost it.)

What will become of the future? Soon we will be a restaurant - very much bigger, and better we hope - but ever we remain the coffee house.

And oh, what a vivid passing show! We see neighbours doing property deals with estate agents; hungry-eyed, infatuated Japanese girls; businessmen taking French conversation with pretty instructresses; spinsterish women meeting up after early church services; architects and entrepreneurs plotting restaurants; speculators meeting portfolio managers; artists and musicians indolently just looking cool; big butch gay men ordering pots of tea and slyly embracing.... There is so much here, in short, to amuse and divert us. Could we possibly bear to be without it?

*The Coffee House, A Cultural History, by Markman Ellis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.