“No sir,” the 18th century poet Samuel Johnson once said, “there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”
I am not a man of pubs, and I am not sure Mr Johnson would recognise the ‘taverns’ of today. Still, there is something in what he says that I feel about the café. A good café can produce a certain kind of happiness. I do not mean the overly stylised or pretentious ones that make the lists of ‘Melbourne’s best’. I mean the local café, the one where you go to be familiar, to drink coffee, to sit and think, to write or read, or talk with friends. I feel a happiness in such places that stands apart. Indeed, there are few places I would rather be.
A good café is a communal space, yet offering respite and solitude of a particular kind. It is public yet secure, familiar yet a place of strangers. The coffee is served by people who care. There is simple fare — breakfast and brunches and little cakes. You can sit for as long as you like with a jug of water to ease the time. It is not loud or overly busy, but a place of life. There might be music, but none you notice until you listen for it. There are gentle conversations going on in different corners while in others there is silence. You can watch and listen, or not. You can lose yourself for a bit while life treads by outside the window. You’ll re-join it soon, but for now you sit and sip, and breathe.
Some might say the idea of a café as a maker of happiness is an over-reach. True, happiness is a slippery, subjective thing. What one considers a state of happiness may be boredom to another. Happiness is commonly understood as a feeling, fleeting or seasonal, or for others an aspiration. Whatever it is, it is certainly not a right. Rather, it’s a gift that may, or may not, sit beneath things or tasks or conversations. For me, happiness is a certain peace, a connection, a sense of time and space, contentment and ease. It’s a place I need.
While such ease is challenged amidst chaotic lives, it is very much a choice we make within them. A café is a venue of such choice, a holder of a particular happiness into which we can slip from time to time.
So, I’ll skip your taverns, Mr Johnston, but I’ll take my seat at the café table anytime.
Written at The Social Foundry, Kyneton, a social enterprise café that ticks all the boxes. The image above is of Ricardo Balaca’s El café (1844-1880)