Why are cafés the way they are?

Alex RoweCulture

As I overheard their conversation I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. A young woman began to open up to another about the struggles of her marriage, and I realised that I was privy to the kind of private confession reserved for long-time friendship. The frustration of a dedicated spouse who thinks herself to be more proactive than the other. The pain of a misunderstood woman whose husband thinks she is being oversensitive. The sad loneliness that can creep into what is supposed to be the most intimate of relationships. There I was, a complete and total stranger, able to hear all.

But this overheard conversation is only one of many. Throughout my time frequenting cafés, either as customer or employee, I have come across countless similar cases. I’ve witnessed laughter and joy and tear and sadness, and much in between.

Why is it that our cafés and coffeehouses have become centres for this kind of orchestra of encounter? How is it that people choose such public spaces for their personal and private matters? Why are cafés as they are?


I’ve seen an estranged father reunited with his daughter. He’s nervous. He stayed away after his marriage broke apart, and has hidden for years in alcoholic shame. She made contact after years of separation.

I’ve been offered discounted haircuts. This occurred more than once. Were they try to tell me something?

I’ve seen the lonely woman who comes in the evening, orders a glass of red wine, sits at the table in the corner of the room. Later she will order another, and perhaps another.

“Our dream was to create a space that caused community, a space that brought life, that brought hope, that brought people together.”

I’ve watched on the long hugs and gentle kisses of the young couple who meet after a long day’s work. They’re both busy people, but time goes slowly when they’re together. It’s the way they hold each other’s gaze. I still remember their laughs and smiles. I cannot deny that my quiet admiration for them was not mixed with a little envy, as I stood behind the bar, pulling pints of beer or shots of espresso.

I’ve had conversations with strangers that have influenced me more profoundly than they will ever know. If I could contact them, somehow, I would thank them.


Why are cafés as they are? I do not know. To do justice to such a complex question would require the kind of modern historical and sociological awareness that I simply to do possess. My guess is as good as anybody’s. I can’t explain this strange phenomenon, but I can point it out. I can herald it as beautiful.

I remember hearing about the School House Café when it existed only as an idea in the minds of its visionaries. I was excited to hear their plans, but sad that I no longer lived in Cheltenham and could only watch from afar. But now, as of last month, the café has opened. The dream is beginning to be realised.

Built into the vision of this café is the idea of creating a space.

“Our dream was to create a space that caused community, a space that brought life, that brought hope, that brought people together.”

The preparation behind the scenes is done. The renovation work is complete. It’s doors are open. The space is there for the taking. Now it’s your turn. Get yourself down to the School House Café.

Why are cafés as they are? I can’t explain their strange potency for building community. But I can encourage others to see it, to believe in it, and to join in.