Skip to content

The Café Aesthetic

By Ciera Miller

There’s something about coffee and the attraction of the arts. It’s almost a cliche now to find authors working in cafés. Musicians and artists, philosophers and politicians—you’ll too see them in cafés, often no matter the time. But how did we get to this place, with coffee shops adopting an “artsy”, knowledge-based aesthetic?

Coffeehouses began in the 1500s in Mecca, not far from Ethiopia, where coffee is thought to have originated. Always a gathering place, these cafés attracted people to them, to talk and meet over a cup of coffee. But what were they talking about? The imams, religious leaders in the Middle East, thought it must be politics. They thought these people in the coffee shops were going to challenge the current rule, and soon enough, coffee and coffeehouses were banned in Mecca as a way to stop the presumed overthrow.

Although they were banned, the idea of coffeehouses sailed across the Mediterranean. The first coffeehouse opened in Europe opened in Venice in 1647, but the oldest today is Caffé Florian. Even though the sea separated Italy from the Middle East, somehow the ideas of knowledge surrounding coffee traveled with it. It was the Caffé Florian that the playwrights Goethe and Casanova frequented at the beginning of the coffeehouse’s life, and later came Dickens, Lord Byron, and Proust. During the French Revolution, political leaders asked the owner of Caffé Florian to shut it down, in fear that the people gathering there would plan their own revolution or aid in the French one.

Speaking of the French, the Café Procope was a hub for actors and philosophers. Located just down the street from a famous Parisian theatre, Café Procope was a hotspot for the performers to go to after their shows, whether it be a ballet, a play, an opera. Even though it was in the theatre district, it did attract philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau and politicians like Thomas Jefferson. Years later, La Closerie des Lilas was formed, and is known not only as the place that Hemingway wrote his The Sun Also Rises,  but as the place where artist Pablo Picasso, and writers James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald all frequented.

In San Francisco, a café stands today called Vesuvio, and it grew up around the arts. Jack Kerouac skipped an important meeting with Arthur Miller to sit all night in the café, which in a Bohemian style, has local art hung up all over the walls. The Beat generation grew up around it. Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl there, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (a French teacher and painter) left the Sorbonne to visit and start a bookstore across the street, and Neal Cassady found a story being inspired by himself there. At Vesuvio, a San Francisco renaissance of poetry and literature emerged. And at the same time, on the other side of the country, this was happening at Caffé Reggio in New York City, with Jack Kerouac still leading the herd.

Locally, too, the ideas of knowledge and arts finds it way to me. In downtown Farmington stands a Dunkin’ Donuts, a local coffee shop called Java Joe’s, and on the University of Maine at Farmington’s own campus, there is the Mantor Café, which is in the university’s library. Dunkin’ Donuts, wherever you go, will always have someone writing or reading in the far corner—at least, there has been in the ten I’ve been to. In Java Joe’s, you’ll find an artist working on his sketchbook and a lady coming up to tell him how beautiful his trees look. She will then join a group of older people and they’ll discuss the current political climate, not only in Maine, but throughout the United States. I might be in the corner writing or reading.

Of course, in the library’s café, you’ll find students working on school work or meeting with a teacher over a cup of coffee. A few weeks ago, one of the music professors discussed his travels abroad over a cup of tea with a student and one of the global education directors. Behind them, a girl was drawing in a small book she’d made all on her own, a caramel latte within her reach.

Even now, as I write this, I am in the Mantor Café. My coffee has run out but others around me are still drinking and possessing the creative spirit that seems to accompany coffee wherever it goes. Were the rules set in stone all those years ago, when coffee was discovered and gathered around in Mecca? Could coffee shops only allow people of literature and art and knowledge in, so now we stand here today, with cafés being hubs of knowledge and art? Or has coffee just always been something that unites all of us and our ideas?

Sources: Caffe Florian, The History of Coffee Houses, San Francisco’s Vesuvio Cafe, San Francisco Renaissance, Seven Famous Literary Cafes

%d bloggers like this: