cultural constants

words anna weber  |  images alexandria pizzola, anna weber

The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.
— Stephen King, "The Waste Lands"

Every couple of months, someone hysterical says that print media is dead and books in the flesh are disappearing. We will never read books as we once did. They will never again mean to us what they used to. While they're drafting and publishing their fear-mongering, Starbucks has cut the ribbon on yet another street corner brick-and-mortar establishment. But books aren't bought purely for the consumption of press, and coffee isn't solely consumed for the jolt needed to oil the cogs to jump-start a sluggish morning.

The intertwined history of deep thought and coffee begins close to 800 AD with the myth of Kaldi, the Ethiopian herder who discovered the bean and brought it to a nearby monastery. The monks stayed up all night praising their creator for the bean. Qahwah khaneh of the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East followed, early coffeehouses in the Middle Ages that became the social and educational hubs of their neighborhoods.

Patrons engaged in philosophical conversation and discussion, prefacing the French salons and English "penny universities." Later, authors of the Great American Novel found themselves—eyes bloodshot, hair disheveled—in the backs of Italian espresso bars or Spanish bistros, slumped over stained tables covered in crumbs, slurping on scalded brew from chipped cups as the sun streamed through the open door. Higher thinking and caffeine have always been linked, hand-in-hand, inseparable childhood friends, skipping merrily.

And so, coffee and coffeehouses have a history of being the great equalizers, serving the same beverage to a wide spectrum of people as they sketch and scratch, argue and sing, plan their futures and plot revolutions. Different beans ground together, energy sipped and sapped until it's been put to use, channeled into electricity, drained.

Indie bookstore people and local coffee company people tend to be the same people. They appreciate when things are a little slower, when there is a little bit more space between the parade of infinite moments in a day. They revel in things that they can touch and smell, that show wear and individuality, that bear marks and inflections from time and human hands. No paperback or latte leaf is the same. They work to tease out fine and subtle details to form comprehensible trains of meaning—the smoky or fruity essences of a pourover, the messages hidden between lines of text. They are the people-watchers, folks you see seeing you, as they gaze through a steamy window or from a broken bench on the other side of the canal.

"How can I help you?"

"What do you recommend?"

That's my common question to any barista or bookstore attendant, as I scan a menu or peruse musty aisles, overwhelmed by the choices. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, Frost once wrote, and too often, I find myself facing seven, twenty-two, hundreds of different paths and trails, branching and splintering into infinite capillaries of possibility. Cafés and bookstores don't help. Their loyal, watchful guardians are my guides.

"Hot or cold?"

"Hot."

"Milk or no milk?"

"No milk."

"Savory or sweeter?"

"Savory."

"Do you have some time to wait?"

"All the time in the world."

"I'm going to give you our San Jose pourover."

Perfect.

I find refuge in cafés and bookstores when I travel. If the language isn't one that I speak, I'll still dive headfirst into the aisles or seat myself at a communal table, trying to pick up broken bits and pieces of Portuguese or Polish. Stories and histories, myths and legends, worldviews and mentalities—so much of the lifeblood of a country, a region, a city, even one small neighborhood, flows in and out of its cafés, bookstores, and hearts. I try to will it all into my system through absorption, through my fingertips, my pores.

The hum of the machines, the clatter of the cash registers, and the chatter between staff are always the same, whether I'm in Lisbon or Vermont. Patrons have the same lean over their cups of coffee, hanging on for stability, what dearness they have in their lives. Eyes methodically scan shelves, fingers massaging jumbled rows of cracked spines, shuffling feet set to an automatic pace (read: snail's).

There is crossover, and so much of it—perusing the stacks with a to-go mug in one hand, or slanting over a coffee bar with a book wedged between fingers. In either hole in the wall, there is the same flicker of unhappiness assuaged, even joy unbridled, on the faces of people who have just made a purchase—tiny sighs escape their lips as they clutch their wares tightly, ordinary treasures to be cherished and savored.

It might be my first day in a new place. It doesn't matter. These are my people, I still think.

"Tenth of December. Nice."

"Yeah, I read one of his short stories recently for a class and fell head over heels."

"Who else did you read that you liked?"

"Really enjoyed Antonya Nelson. And Mary Gaitskill."

"You should give Amelia Gray a try. Short, snappy, disturbing bits of prose."

"My favorite kind."

Have you noticed that a lukewarm coffee and a used paperback smell the same? That a full mug and a hardcover book weigh the same in your hand? That baristas around the world all have the same absentminded eyes, the same finely tuned muscles in their hands? That a bookstore cashier in Toronto or in Rome will treat, with care and tenderness, each novel that you bring to the register?

We have always loved coffee. We have always loved books. It's the most universal love there is.

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