The Coffee Shop Enigma

Are coffeeshops public spaces?

That is the question isn’t it.  People come and go, they meet, chat, work, sit, sip, and leave.  But they are technically privately-owned spaces, provided by the shop owners for patrons to enjoy their wares.  Some places have time limits, most have policies about food that wasn’t purchased there, and you are certainly expected to buy something.

So, not all that public really.  But, if I’m meeting a friend, I’m much more likely to suggest a coffee shop than a park or square.

Coffee shops certainly create community as well.  Some people search out coffee shops when they are working alone, as they are soothed and stimulated by the buzz of passing humanity.  People carrying branded cups mark their membership in the cult of coffeedom, and can easily identify other initiates.  This is a powerful marker of identity.  Around here, people identify themselves as either a Starbucks or Second Cup person, and will actively search out the ‘right’ coffee shop rather than patronize the alternative.

This relationship between institutions, patrons, and identity is one that resonates strongly with me, as a scholar of prehistory.  We often talk about people carrying material markers of their membership in institutions/families/networks, and this is mainly assumed to be a public affair.  But what if it wasn’t?

If early institutions/families/networks were only accessible to members, with the proverbial bathroom key only available to paying customers, were their holdings actually public spaces?

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