Through their picture windows, the café is one of the best places to watch the world go by. Whether it’s with a newspaper, a book, a laptop or a friend, for work or just for breakfast, there are many people whose morning or weekend routine is made complete by a trip to the local coffee shop. For me, the café – any café, really – is the ideal place to get out of the house and stave off the shameful monsters of writer’s block, they that seem to save their worst assaults for the four walls of home.
A few years ago, when I was traveling while writing a book, searching for the ideal café became something of a habit in every city. It was hard to find a place to sit in Italy, where customers would line the bars, down their espressos and leave, and much the same was true in Belgium where it was easier to have a beer at 10 AM than to find a café to idle in. Fortunately, in the area of Mitte in Berlin, Germany, the cafes go on block after block, all aiming for the perfect cup, the newest trend, the ideal setting for a certain kind of person.
One night, looking for somewhere to sit, I happed along St Oberholz on Rosenthaler Strasse with my notebook, a cafe that opened in 2005 and takes up the Aschinger Building, stretching into a locale that features a co-working space, an events area and plenty of room for casual conversations and lingering laptops. Open until 3 AM, I stayed at St Oberholz until after one, writing alongside the other customers with their computers, feeling an odd sense of comfort at being able to write in a café until such an early hour. It is easy enough to see the philosophy of life that can go into a cup of coffee, but like all the cool cafes, St Oberholz and its surrounding area have a story to tell too.
For most writers, having a few coffee shops close by to choose from is a necessity. Like the cities of Berlin, Melbourne and Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia is a coffee city, a place where one can walk only a couple of blocks and find a new rapidly-gentrifying area, one that is being reimagined as a hipster enclave that will soon be full of $5 lattes, avocado toast and many a surly expression. I’ve come to love seeking out the new best latte or finding some re-imagined pastry that hasn’t yet been popularized, but – in a city where real estate creates a great divide – there is an underside.
In parts of the city like Gastown and Chinatown, where gentrification has been occurring without apology, it is no surprise to see an almost ramshackle building next to a high-end café with fluorescent lights and peanut butter bars, avocado toast with shallots, and numerous pairs of chunky glasses with their respective beards. Many a time, I’ve sat at Dalina on Main Street hearing the screams of a homeless person, and stared beyond the windows of Prado Café on West Hastings Street to observe the collision of two contrasting worlds, that of low-income, in-need people alongside the high-end wants of young professionals.
It is easy enough to find some sense of delight in a good latte, but the irony of two disparate cities is quite clear through the window.