I suspect it is very similar in most other cities familiar to readers of this blog, but the face of Dublin is changing as a result of the recession. We have already mentioned bookshops closing, but in fact you can walk along any major shopping street in Dublin and see the casualties. Shops have disappeared, restaurants have closed. But there seems to me to be one exception to this experience: coffee shops.
When I was a student in Dublin in the mid-1970s, there was really only one coffee shop (or actually, it was a small chain), and that was Bewleys. This was a company with Quaker origins, and it ran five or six outlets, each called ‘Bewleys Oriental Cafés’. I was never quite sure what the ‘oriental’ bit was referring to, but actually if you went into them at the time you tended to walk through a dark panelled entrance hall, and to me there was always a whiff there of something exotically Victorian, as if one of the doors leading out of the hall might open into an opium den. They didn’t, or at least I don’t think so, but these cafés were big on atmosphere. I’m not sure what we’d make of the milky coffee and sticky buns now, but they kind of went with the image.
Bewleys is still there (or at least it’s there on Grafton Street), but not at all what it used to be. And all over Dublin the café culture has shifted from Victorian London to modern day Seattle, with Starbucks now on almost every corner, and local lookalikes spreading out in between. And the recession does not appear to have damaged them: they are still there in numbers, and when I go inside they all seem to be full.
I confess I like Bewleys as a nostalgia trip in my memory, I don’t need the old version to return. And I find that the modern US-style coffee shops do something for me, from the smell of the coffee to the hint of business-meeting-alternative-culture of the clientele. I rather like taking out my iPad and writing something on the spot (probably 50 or so blog posts have originated there). I like watching the world from there. I like eavesdropping. There is something social about coffee shops, and as we have lost so much recently, let us not lose these.