There are many things in this world beyond my feeble ken — nuclear physics, Microsoft Word, women — but a daily and ongoing bafflement is the survival of the corner coffee shop.
How does that work exactly?
By which I mean: how do those enterprises manage to stay in business?
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s economic hara kiri. You have proprietors paying a hefty rent to occupy a trendy, expensively refurbished space to sell heated beverages to, well, basically, a roomful of freeloaders.
Granted, the cafe owners get a nice return on the four or five bucks they charge for a mug of hot water and .000003 cents worth of ground beans, but still…
Think of the customer turnover compared to, say, a hamburger joint. At the Burger King the customers are sliding through like Jeep chassis on a Chrysler assembly line.
And at the coffee shop? Well, the lady at the first table — the one hunched over her iPad next to the chai latte that’s so old its sprouting lily pads — is working on chapter 20 of her doctoral thesis on the influence of Rumi on neo-Renaissance architecture.
At table two, a homeless guy wearing Bose headphones is puzzling over the New York Times crossword. The rest of the clientele is reading, writing, snoozing, gazing into space or murmuring sweet nothings into adjacent earholes.
Hardly any of them are buying and nobody’s moving. I’m no economist, but that does not sound like an outstanding model of mercantile viability.
And speaking of unsound business practices, who’s the marketing genius who came up with the idea of offering free Internet access in coffee shops? Brilliant!
Now every geek with a laptop who’s still living with his parents has a free downtown office (with a heated bathroom and complimentary serviettes) where he can go and play Grand Theft Auto until his fingers bleed.
It makes no sense. And yet there is an intersection in downtown Vancouver that features a Starbucks on the northeast corner; a Starbucks on the southwest corner — and two independent coffee shops on the other two corners! Not only that, but they all appear to be crowded and they’ve been in business for years.
So what do I know?
Well, I know that some coffee shops seem to be feeling the pinch on their bottom line.
They’re taking down the Free Internet signs and taping up the electrical outlets in an effort to uproot the laptop squatters.
There’s a cafe in Chicago that’s even resorted to flat-out bribery. If a squatter voluntarily gives up a seat when the place is crowded, management will buy that squatter a drink on the house.
Which, presumably, said squatter will sip while standing outside on the sidewalk, looking in.
Not every customer who goes to a coffee shop is a space hog of course.
A lot of customers line up and get their orders to take out — which again would make sound, efficient business sense if the customers were ordering a double cheeseburger with a side of fries to go.
They are not.
They are ordering concoctions such as a half-skinny, half-chai,iced Frapuccino with whipped cream and a spritz of hapzel nut syrup with an organically grown cinnamon stick on the side.
Or possibly a demitasse of Ethiopian high mountain dark roast pour-over with a decaf espresso shot and a lemon slice.
Coffee shops have been around since Shakespeare’s time. They are the social equivalents of watering holes on the Serengeti — great places to meet with friends, catch up on the latest gossip.
The only problem — it’s getting harder and harder to find anyone who’s nose isn’t buried in an Ipad or — radical thought — to Just Get a Cup of Coffee.
Of course there’s always the Canadian solution.
No upholstered chairs, no baristas at the bar, no Po-Mo computer graphics on the wall. Just fluorescent lights, formica tables…and a queue that moves like Jeep chassis’ on a Chrysler assembly line.
Make mine a double-double.
Arthur Black is a regular News columnist. He lives on Salt Spring Island.