Table Disservice

Kevin Van Aelst for The New York Times.
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: February 11, 2011

No Kindles in cafes? You’ve got to be kidding. This is an affront, not only to readers and gadget lovers, but also to the spirit of cafes!

Many indie New York City cafes now heavily restrict, or ban outright, the use of Kindles, Nooks and iPads. Evidently, too many coffee shops in town have had their ambience wrecked when itinerant word processors with laptops turn the tables into office space. Sure, that phenomenon can be depressing — whether you’re a scornful lady who lunches or the nomadic freelancer who fields glares. And full-dress computers are perhaps too much personal furniture for cafes to accommodate. But banning devices the size of books, like Kindles and iPads, is going too far, and it’s anathema to the character and history of cafes.

Unwholesome things have always happened wherever people drink coffee together. They gossip and complain about powerful jerks; they read, write and scheme about their own comebacks. On the sidelines of those conversations — muttering, silently judging, chiming in — have always been loners who loiter with books and newspapers all day, ready to be recruited into conversation. This might come as hard news to would-be restaurateurs looking only to taste that sweet margin of coffee markup, but loiterers and readers must be part of the cafe equation. People who sit at bars are going to make out and brawl; people who sit in cafes are going to read and talk.

And often what they’re reading and talking about is unsavory. Coffeehouse patrons have always been a little bit . . . wired. This has been true at least since 1555, when the world’s first coffeehouses opened in Istanbul. High on caffeine and impromptu colloquy, 16th-century coffee*house patrons denounced the government. Sultans didn’t like it. Later, in 1675, Charles II described the coffeehouses in England as “places where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.” In 1721, Montesquieu wrote of the coffeehouse scene in France: “Were I the King, I would close the cafes, for the people who frequent those places heat their brains in a very tiresome manner. I would rather see them get drunk in taverns. Then, at least, they would harm only themselves, while the intoxication which coffee arouses in them causes them to endanger the country’s future.”

But what the powerful disdain, the bookish and garrulous adore. Well before Jean-Paul Sartre made Parisian cafes the headquarters of Western literary life — saying he wrote in cafes because the clamor helped him concentrate — coffeehouses were a place to try out ideas. Jean Chardin, a French visitor to Istanbul, couldn’t get enough of the curious Turkish brew: readers, writers, populists buzzing with class rage and even dervishes (real dervishes) reciting poetry. But what he appreciated most about cafes was not that you got to express yourself in them. He was delighted that you were not required to listen to anyone else express himself. “No one is forced to give up his game or his conversation” just because another coffee drinker is trying to hold court. Amen.

Knowing how to tune in and out, by turns, has long been a skill of cafe people. Now headphones facilitate that practice — both symbolizing and enforcing public solitude. That works for cafe novices, but in the long term, it’s the job of anyone in a public space to learn the fine art of ignoring people.

Not long ago in Brooklyn, a man with an iPod, whose headphones were whining, pulled off his headset. He asked two gossiping women nearby to talk more quietly. “Why don’t you turn your music down?” one of them asked. “It’s turned up so loud to drown you out!” shouted the man, in full 16th-century mode. Tempers spiked but, by cafe common law, both parties were wrong. There are all kinds of freedoms in cafes, but you can’t tell other people to turn it down. (The caffeine-induced irritability was a nice traditional touch, however.)

You also can’t tell cafe patrons to stop reading — even when e-readers don’t look (for now) as classy as paperbacks, newspapers or pamphlets. Sure, e-readers are dangerous: someone reading on one might make a note or check Facebook or play Scrabble. Sorry, proprietors — if they can find the Web with their tablet or phone, you shouldn’t be stopping them.
NYT