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The problem with coffeeshops

| Tuesday, August 28, 2018

It was a sad day when I first tapped on Spotify’s genre station “Your Favorite Coffeehouse.” Spotify — that brilliant music platform that supplied the geeky rigor of Pandora’s Music Genome Project with the internet-capitalizing muscle of a Google, Inc. to create the most efficient method of enjoying music today. Every week I have a fresh new playlist — produced by the calculus of taps and listens — delivered to the front door of my iPhone, with all the neighborly intimacy of a paper boy who plays on the local baseball team.

I used to rely on my sister’s voracious musical research to find new artists. These were the days of burnt discs and 99 cent songs on iTunes, when Jen devoted her idle hours digging through new releases and old classics, searching for an authentic sound she could rest in, even as her clunky 2004 MacBook overheated on her bed comforter. I beamed with fraternal pride when she could boast that the new hit song on the radio, by Jack White or something? She had been listening to it for months. She had “discovered” it.

It was with the same pride that I walked into Zen Café for the first time. It’s a local coffee shop, a little outside downtown, that’s brewing coffee in an abandoned industrial building, the paint from what must be a Rust Belt-era advertisement still fading from the brick exterior. I almost felt bad that I got directions there from Google Maps. Zen Café’s home-grown feel, cultivating new life out of the ruins of South Bend’s history, rooted me to a particular place and a particular story. I could snuggle into their leather sofa (framed by a decrepit wall and a wood palate coffee table) with all the comfort of one who feels that the dark goodness flowing through his veins was lovingly culled from the earth by a passionate Colombian farmer who might say something authentic-sounding, like “coffee, for us, is a way of life.” In Spanish of course.

This authentic vitality is lacking in the recently renovated Charron Family Commons. The O’Shaughnessy coffee shop has been scrubbed clean of its charming inefficiency. The cramped intimacy won by claiming one of those old wooden booths has been digested and delivered back to us, but the new booths don’t speak to us in the same way. Waddick’s was, for sensitive Arts and Letters’ egos, a life-giving hearth at the kernel of a crumbling, though cherished, O’Shag Hall. But the space has been gutted, revamped and plastered with such (admittedly tasteful) glitz and economy that caffeine-coursing students risk forgetting where they are, or who they are. The framed picture and bio of Waddick’s namesake (as unknown to us today as the hands who built O’Shag) has been replaced by a plaque that would fit just as neatly in the library or Duncan Student Center.

Will the prospie wandering through campus, or the procrastinator looking for the perfect nook to conduct her studies “discover” Charron Family Commons? Or will they rather submit to an all-presiding aesthetic they cannot escape? … spoon-fed to their infant lips by the administration’s calculus of “Your Favorite Coffeehouse”?

But, if I’m being honest, as much as I want to find aesthetic failures in the new coffee shop, I am at a loss. My modern sensibility is flattered by handy outlet towers. My anxieties are calmed by the floor’s dark value. A wooden-lattice ceiling piece that straddles the bisecting hallway echoes the general idea of a coffee shop that incorporates the booths’ winking homage into an contemporary chic: the ceiling piece unifies two distinct spaces just as the ventures a unity-in-tension between past and present. The Charron Family Commons is as considerate as it is intelligent.

Still, the space exudes a stale sense of repression and amnesia, stronger than what must be felt from any renovation of a beloved symbol. But all my needs are satisfied; my eyes are pleased; my intellect is rewarded by reflection — what else can I want in a coffeeshop? Perhaps I will resolve this lingering sense of constriction — next between-class coffee — by listening to my Spotify ‘Discover Weekly.’

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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