#CoffeeShops aren’t just about the beverage, they’re about the #culture

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I’m such a regular fixture at area coffee shops that some folks assume I work for myself. If I had an office, why would I lug my laptop to a place that expects me to pay rent in the form of hot, caffeinated beverages?

Yes, I have a coffee habit. But for me, it’s not about the drink. It’s about the experience.

I began drinking coffee in college, as so many people do. All-night study sessions had nothing to do with it, though. (I can still chase a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso and nod off within an hour.) My motivation was simpler: I wanted an excuse to hang out in coffee shops.

During a handful of group study sessions, I discovered steamers—steamed milk with a shot of flavored syrup—and felt like I was on my way. There was something for a non-coffee, non-tea drinker after all! But hot milk is more conducive to settling down for sleep than focusing on classical rhetoric. I craved something more.

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The answer came during a spring-break trip to Philadelphia. The group I spent my days with insisted on at least two coffee-shop stops per day.Dunkin’ Donuts would suffice in a moment of desperation, but after hours of volunteering, the coffee fans among us longed to sit and sip at Starbucks.

After several days of this, I asked a group member for help. I loved the sitting, but I wanted something to sit, too, something to make me feel part of the coffee-swilling club. On a friend’s recommendation, I ordered a caramel frappuccino.

It was all downhill from there.

Within days, I moved from the barely-there, hint-of-espresso slush to a caramel macchiato. I filled the remainder of that semester with steaming cups of Folgers, each topped with a half-cup of flavored creamer and at least two tablespoons of sugar. (You’ve got to start somewhere.)

And, of course, many, many coffee-shop visits.

My college town didn’t yet have a Starbucks, and so I was quickly propelled into the world of independent coffee shops. I sampled specialty drinks wherever I could, and returned to my gateway drug whenever I was in a larger city. In grad school, I became acquainted with five campus buildings: My college, the library, the football stadium, the student health center and—most importantly?—the student center.

That’s where they kept the coffee.

My drug of choice quickly became part of my identity. Writers are expected to turn to caffeine as their fuel. I became proud of coffee rings on my work. Friends regularly gave me gift cards to Starbucks, and I regularly wrote in coffee shops. When I built a photo gallery of reasons why a friend should move to Tuscaloosa, my favorite local coffee shop was a centerpiece. (The photos worked.)

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With each passing year, my coffee snobbiness grew. In the period between graduation and my first job, the Starbucks nearest me offered a free cupping course. I slurped my way to greater coffee knowledge, including an understanding of why the snootiest of coffee connoisseurs insist on drinking it black. Coffee roasted to its optimal flavor profile should be balanced and smooth, not bitter, and therefore shouldn’t require cream or sugar to mask its flavor. For a time, I stood by that principle, even though I prefer the viscosity of a creamy cup. (I’ve since given in to my preferences, snootiness be darned.)

I spent years after my coffee baptism moving from city to city, chasing dreams. No matter where I landed, I found a home in the closest coffee shop. They became the places where I found baristas-come-cheerleaders who offered me support and a listening ear on the toughest days. They have been safe spaces where I can sit and cry when I’ve haven’t wanted to be alone, for fear that the darkness would overwhelm me. They’re places where I meet new friends, simply because we see each other there on a near-daily basis. Coffee shops offer a sense of community. A place where I’m known. A place where I’m safe and never alone.

Oh. And of course, there’s the coffee. But if that was all I wanted, I could do just fine at home.

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Carla Jean Whitley no longer prefers Starbucks, but appreciates its place in America’s coffee culture. You’ll often find her reading and writing in Alabama coffee shops, where she typically orders plain coffee in a futile attempt not to spend too much on her second-favorite beverage. (Milk is first.) Follow her adventures on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Originally posted in AL By Carla Jean Whitley

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