What Makes a Coffee House?

A couple of weeks ago, my friend David suggested that we go to a certain coffeehouse called College Grounds (not its real name). David was extremely excited about going to there. He said to me, “you’ll love this place.” I did not. It was not a coffee house.

A coffeehouse welcomes all without qualification, not just one class of clients.

When we arrived, I quickly learned that the coffee house was a literal house. The owners had purchased the house and converted into a place of business. When we entered the coffee shop, we arrived in what appeared to be a former living room. After placing our order, I began to pursue a place to sit. I made my way out of the “living room” into the main hallway. As I made my way down the hallway, I peered into a room, which felt overpopulated by aspiring artists. The room itself, although not terribly large, was inhabited only by a few people. Still, it didn’t feel right. I continued my trek down the hallway until coming to a fairly spacious room. It appeared to be a former family room.

This room was inhabited by one person typing away on his computer (perhaps he was pounding out the next Great American novel, or maybe just writing an e-mail to friend). After scanning the room, a little bit longer, I located a vacant sofa that was next to a coffee table. The place seemed fitting enough. I sat there waiting a few minutes until David finally arrived with our beverages. He had opted for a cold beer, and I for a large cup of black coffee. Our conversation began with casual chitchat until the chitchat transitioned into storytelling, and storytelling into theorizing and philosophizing. As I talked back and forth with David, I noticed that I conversed with a more hushed tone that I would ordinarily. This perplexed me at the time.

Given some reflection, my perplexity can now be expressed as criticism. College Grounds is not a coffeehouse, but a house that serves coffee. A coffeehouse is a place that serves coffee, which creates a social environment that welcomes all without qualification. College Grounds serves coffee, for sure, but it creates a social environment which welcomes some.


You see, by the very act of creating a coffeehouse out of a former personal residence, College Grounds communicates several implicit propositions. First, the owners of this house are resourceful . Second, the owners of this coffeehouse are creative in the way the used resources. These propositions are embodied in the very design the place of business. The very fact that the coffee shop remained largely recognizable still a place of residence evidences the values of resourcefulness and creativity.


This architectural story is cherished by the clientele. The coffee shop is inhabited by college students or for college students with a largely artistic bent demonstrates that the propositions of the architecture were received.


I, for one, felt uncomfortable in the environment. There was no social space. A personal residence is not designed for strangers to coexist apart from one another, but designed for familiar people to cohabit with one another. A personal residence brings people together face-to-face through low ceilings and small rooms (rooms usually smaller than can be found in most public places). So, even though each room in the coffee shop was actually sparsely populated, the room itself felt crowded.


In addition, the acoustics allowed for strangers to easily access my conversation with David. The circumstance was created by the architecture itself. The room’s low ceilings enabled sound carry easily from one into the other. Thus, I felt compelled to talk quietly, even though the passion and intensity compelled me to do otherwise. All in all, I maintain that College Grounds is a house that serves coffee, and not a coffeehouse. A coffeehouse creates and promotes a social environment where all are welcome without qualification. In other words, there is a blended or varied clientele – not just one class of client.

Leave a Reply