For the last month, I have eagerly awaited the reopening of my home away from home—a little coffee shop tucked into the plaza underneath my building here on campus. It’s been closed for remodeling while most of the students are finishing up their summer breaks. And while it has been delightful to see my favorite baristas out front in the early mornings handing out free coffee to loyal customers, it has also been a loss not to step into the hustle and bustle of the café before I start my day proper. For me—and for many people in this neck of the neighborhood—our coffee shop has been a place to mix business and pleasure. I’ve spent many hours perched at one of those crowded round tables—too close to my neighbor but lost in conversation with a colleague or a friend. I’ve planned meetings in the coffee shop to hammer out the gritty details of a work plan or to brainstorm an improbable scheme to save the Republic. But, I’ve also bumped into just the right person at just the right time and had a conversation that changed the course of a project or at least the course of my day. It has been a true third space—not work or home—that creates the kind of civic glue that keeps a city humming along.
But, this morning when I eagerly walked into my coffee shop on its first day back in business, I found all those round tables gone—replaced by one long library table dotted with reading lamps and bisecting by a shelf separating one side from the next. It is the sort of table that creates a space to be alone in public but not the kind that makes you want to sit down and think out loud with a colleague that you trust or a best friend that makes you laugh harder than anyone else. And, the now there is a full-length bar along all the windows, which would be great except there are no stools. It generates a kind of gulp-and- run impulse, and all those rectangles are sleek but not very inviting.
I’ve long felt that our civic life is being eroded by little losses of civilization, by less hospitality and opportunities for kismet. I know that the tiny ache I carry today around is probably equal parts nostalgia and dislike of change, but I also know that I am less likely to linger in my little coffee shop. And, I am less likely to run into a friend or a colleague or a stranger that might change the course of my day.