Oh, look what’s appeared on the wall in my local Starbucks! It has gone rather quiet in there lately, as people cut back on expensive coffees. (I have not, because caffeine is not something I can easily do without.) Evidently the company is looking for new ways to bring people in, and this is what it has come up with: you can book a table for a group meeting for your business, community group or club. I find this very amusing, because this practice — the ability to reserve tables — was one of the things that made coffeehouses such hotbeds of networking and innovation in 17th-century London. Most famously Lloyd’s coffeehouse, opened by Edward Lloyd in the 1680s, was frequented by ship captains, shipowners and merchants who went to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd began to collect and summarise this information in a regular newsletter, and his coffeehouse became the natural meeting place for shipowners and the underwriters who insured their ships. Some underwriters began to reserve particular tables or booths at Lloyd’s to ensure that their customers could always find them in the same place, and eventually a group of them established the Society of Lloyd’s, which survives to this day as Lloyd’s of London.
So this move by Starbucks is a lovely echo of the golden age of coffeehouses. Another example is the use of Wi-Fi in coffeehouses to get your e-mail and read the news. In the 17th century, before street numbering, people would use coffeehouses as mailboxes, saying “write to me care of the Rainbow”, or whatever. They would also drop into coffeehouses to read newsletters, pamphlets and broadsides, which were available free to patrons. And coffeehouses, then as now, were often used as reputable and neutral venues for business meetings. (I went into all this in my coffeehouse internet piece, which grew into a whole chapter of my drinks book.)
The notion of coffeehouses promoting intellectual and commercial connections is in the air again as a result of Steven Johnson‘s new book, “The Invention of Air”. I haven’t read the book yet, but I used to write for Steven’s webzine, FEED, so he was an early patron of my interest in historical analogies. Several of his books also interweave old and new technologies, but whereas my thing is historical analogies, his is something like interconnectedness, if I had to choose a single word. He is also a proponent of the idea that video games are good for you, which makes him a hero in my book.