Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft has written about the sometimes challenging experience writing in cafés. His essay for the LARB in partial below, the full piece here.
I WENT TO MY first café to escape my mother, not yet knowing that she had once done the same thing — escaped her own parents by walking down the rickety stairs to the basement of the Starr Book Shop in Harvard Square, where she established a makeshift coffeehouse. She did this while she was a high school student in Cambridge in the 1950s, when the Square was still academic shabby, still full of beatniks, decades before the place would be cleaned, covered with money, and left in its current condition, an open-air shopping mall with a red-brick-and-ivy theme. In a basement filled with slowly degrading acidic paper between slowly degrading cardboard covers, my mother wrote poetry, met with friends, and drank the thinnest coffee you can imagine. In college at Radcliffe, she moved across the street to the Pamplona, one of the few remaining businesses that’s been in Harvard Square longer than my family’s been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she would, in time, write her own scholarly books there. The coffee at the Pamplona has never been good, but that was never the point of the place. Even with a new coat of paint it still feels grimy enough to think smart thoughts. The Pamplona has a modesty that’s getting harder to find as cafés — and, thankfully, coffee — get better and better. It comes from a time when we asked less of our amenities.
Decades later and just two miles up the street I, 14 years old, walked to a different used bookstore in a basement with a different urn of coffee kept hot enough to burn all flavor away — but not hot enough to damage flesh. An aspiring writer just as my mother had been, I wrote awful poems in a notebook with a green marbled cover that (I thought) recalled the old books in the basement of the Harvard library. Since I still have that notebook, I can now report that it just looks trashy. I had no idea that I was engaged in a form of auto-seduction; that over the next 20 years I would spend as much of my time in cafés as I could, reading, writing, and hovering between those activities — and eventually asking the question: “What are cafés good for?” Cafés took me through high school, college, the itinerant odd-jobs-and-graduate-school wanderings of my 20s, through the opening moves of my career as a historian, and, of course, up to the realization that I had only retraced my mother’s path. Melville’s Ishmael says that whenever it is “a damp, drizzly November” in his soul he “account[s] it high time to get to sea as soon as [he] can.” When I’m down, and when I’m up, I go to a café. I’ve gone to write, to read, to see friends or to get away from friends, to have strong feelings and to escape strong feelings, to pursue a crush or because of loneliness, because of inertia, because of dependency. I’ve gone because I liked people, or because I was trying very hard to like people. And of course, I’ve gone for coffee itself, but it is interesting how quickly that can drop out of the reckoning. I’ve gone to be in public, and I’ve gone to be alone in public. Cafés have formed a through-line in my life, holding me stable across several coast-to-coast moves, protean writing projects, and different visions of who I wanted to become.