On a regular basis I am obliged to explain that I am not a barista.
This is what people assume when I mention that I was “working at a café.”
“I didn’t know you work at a café?”
“No, no, I just work at cafes….”
“Who’s on first?”
I am one of those people who spends time with her laptop at a cafe on a daily basis. It’s not that I fancy myself Ernest Hemingway or J.K. Rowling. It’s just necessary for my sanity.
I am an extroverted person working in a solitary field. It is not a great match. I can work at home in the morning, and if I need to, in the late afternoon and evening. But by midday, the last place I want to be is home. I get distracted and anxious, and I’m very likely to take a nap. So most days after lunch I pack up my Lexie Barnes computer bag, stick a podcast in my ear, and hit the coffee circuit.
Walking into a café has the effect of making me calm and focused. Perhaps it’s the smell of the coffee, the soothing atmosphere, or the presence of other people, but I am usually able to settle down, focus, and get to work. I always have earplugs on hand—I want to be near people, but I don’t want to get distracted by their conversations, especially the insipid ones. (I was once distracted by two young women having a mind-numbing conversation about their dentists and the fact that their breasts were different sizes.)
It has always been this way. In high school I did all of my homework in front of the television. I have a distinct memory of studying anatomy while watching Bosom Buddies. In college, I left my dorm room whenever I could, studying in hallways, lounges, and window seats. Rarely libraries—they were too quiet. This was in the hazy pre-café days, so it never occurred to me to go anywhere else.
During a short sojourn in France I fell in love with cafés. (Unfortunately, I fell in love with very little else in France, which is why the sojourn was short.) Returning to Ann Arbor, the best I could do was Drake’s, the ancient, storied sandwich and candy shop. I curled up in a booth in its dark recesses and absorbed the reading for “20th Century American Wars.” Within a year, cafes finally found their way to Ann Arbor and I found my comfort zone.
In graduate school, I did most of my work in Dunn Brother’s Café in St. Paul, including writing most of my papers by hand. They roasted their coffee on site and that aroma still soothes me instantly.
These days, as a freelance writer, I’m in a café every day, whether I have work to do or not. Northampton has almost as many cafes as sushi shops and yoga studios, so I have many from which to choose. Each provides a certain something. So, laptop, earplugs, and coffee in hand, I’ll take you on a little tour.
When the stars first aligned, bringing the miracle of a laptop and widespread wireless, I started my Northampton café career at Woodstar. Woodstar is ideal for the itinerant extrovert. Built into the former firehouse, it’s a long row of tables where you sit cheek by jowl with your neighbors. The eavesdropping is excellent. It is also the place where I’m likely to see everyone I’ve ever known. Great for socializing—not always great for accomplishing anything. I love their soups and toast, and in the summer they offer a fruity iced tea that’s like Kool Aid for grownups. On a bright day, its huge windows make it an ideal place to be, as long as you can keep the glare off your computer screen.
A few years ago, on a gloomy winter day, when Woodstar’s wireless was proving inconsistent, I stomped in a huff over to Haymarket. Haymarket feels like Woodstar’s opposite: dark and cavern-like, with an atmosphere we’ll call bohemian. I came because the wireless was more consistent, but stayed because the atmosphere proved to be perfect for me. It feels like a cocoon, and I see fewer friends, so I can do more focused work there than any place in town. Bonus: they are one of the few cafés with plenty of power outlets (though I have learned to never leave the house without a fully charged battery). Drawback: their adorable pastries are a constant torment.
I’ve dabbled in other cafes, but they haven’t enticed me to stay. I’m pretty certain that Northampton Coffee doesn’t want me to stay, as they are clearly not set up for the laptop crowd. But their Americano is so rich and delicious, it’s worth an occasional visit. And as it is modeled after my brother’s café, Rubi’s in Great Barrington, I have a warm feeling about it. The Yellow Sofa is another great spot, and you can always get a table. That may be the problem, it’s usually quite empty on weekday afternoons, which makes it far too much like my own living room. Sip, one of the newest contenders in Northampton’s coffee scene, is quite lovely, and it’s become the go to spot for my weekly writing group. The coffee rivals Northampton Coffee in its richness and the food looks dangerous. But also like Northampton Coffee, its small size doesn’t invite long work stretches (though the genuine working fireplace may counter that).
If I had my druthers, I would spend every afternoon at the Montague Bookmill. Located about 25 minutes away, it is a used bookstore and café (The Lady Killigrew) in an 1842 gristmill, alongside a rushing river and waterfall. The moment I walk in I am utterly at peace. Even if my children are with me. Environmental Prozac. I convince myself that I will head up there to work on a regular basis, but I rarely do.
Since the Bookmill won’t move itself to Northampton, on most days, you’ll find me at The Roost, my pied-à-terre since they opened last February. It gets extra points for being the first café in my neighborhood. There’s a downside to this—I get less exercise. It’s not as cocoon-like as Haymarket, but I seem to be able to tuck in and focus on my work. I see enough friends to make it interesting, but not so many that I over socialize. (Though it’s surprising that all of the regulars aren’t bosom friends by now). Most of the seating is far away from the display of desserts, so I can’t hear them calling my name. I like it even more as a place to cozy up on a cold night, sipping mead and quizzing Fred with the Trivial Pursuit cards.
In another day and age I might have spent my afternoons writing in bars like so many legendary writers. I might enjoy the camaraderie, but I wouldn’t be very productive, asleep and drooling at 2:45 p.m. after one glass of wine.