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Coffeehouse Culture

The customs of coffeehouse and café appear to be intimately connected to the effect of coffee and caffeine on mind and body. Coffee stimulates conscious mental associations, whereas alcohol, for instance, provokes instinctual responses. In other words, alcohol typically makes us want to eat, fight, make love, dance, and sleep, whereas coffee encourages us to think, talk, read, write, or work. Wine is consumed to relax, and coffee to drive home. For the Moslems, the world's first coffee drinkers, coffee was the "wine of Apollo," the beverage of thought, dream, and dialectic, "the milk of thinkers and chess players." For the faithful Moslem it was the answer to the Christian and pagan wine of Dionysus and ecstasy.

From the inception of the coffeehouse in Mecca to the present, customers in cafés tend to talk and read rather than dance, play chess rather than gamble, and listen contemplatively to music rather than sing. The café usually opens to the street and sun, unlike bars or saloons, whose dark interiors protect the drinker from the encroachment of the sober, workaday world. The coffee drinker wants not a subterranean refuge but a comfortable corner in which to read a newspaper and observe the world as it slips by, just beyond the edge of the table.

The café is connected with work (the truck stop, the coffee break) and with a special brand of informal study. A customer buried in reading matter is a common sight in even the most lowbrow café. The Turks called their cafés "schools of the wise." In seventeenth-century England, coffeehouses were often called "penny universities." For the price of entry-one penny; coffee cost two, which included newspapers-one could participate in a floating seminar that might include such notables as Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele.

As a matter of fact, aside from the Romanticists, who temporarily switched to plein-air, it is hard to find too many European or American intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who did not spend the better part of their days in cafés or coffeehouses. Recall that the Enlightenment not only gave Europe a new world view, but coffee as well. It must have been considerably easier revolutionizing Western thought after morning coffee than after the typical medieval breakfast of beer and herring.