#AmWriting: The Search for the Perfect Cafe Writing Spot
A café orphan finds her new home…
A few months ago, I was coming off of a really intense period of events, interviews and travel while promoting the second book in my steampunk adventure series Tales of the Captain Duke, looking forward to writing Book 3 at my favourite café, Dark Horse Queen West. As I waited for my Americano-for-here-with-room-for-milk, my barista and I chatted about the lovely fall weather, the book tour, their classes…and then they dropped this on me.
“Yeah, I’m really going to miss this place. But the one I’m going to will be closer to school anyway.”
“Oh no, you’re leaving!?”
“Oh…this location is closing.”
It’s hard enough when one’s favourite baristas move on, but to lose them all at once? To miss my daily walks down Queen St.? To let go of this perfect little café where there’s just enough busy and just enough quiet and the space is filled with happy, creative vibes? My heart was shattered. I was in shock.
It was a common reaction among patrons of this particular café. But the realities of Queen St. West is that rent is pushing out many of the spaces cherished by our neighbourhood. But I’m not here to discuss the gentrification or whether it’s truly necessary to have ten eyeglass shops in a three block radius, I am here to discuss the terrifying dilemma of finding a new café.
My deep and endless love for writing in cafés began in a far off land known as Ottawa, ON. I had friends who worked at a local, fair-trade coffee chain, Bridgehead, who needed to practice their latte art on some poor, unsuspecting soul. I didn’t even like coffee unless it was sweetened by copious amounts of flavoured syrup. Somewhere in this mix, the Vanilla-Hazelnut latte was born—the Vanazelnut, if you will—and through my unique drink of choice and the frequency of my visits, I began to enjoy the extreme privilege of getting to know the staff. They would remember me, remember my order, ask about my research, share a laugh…they made Bridgehead feel like home. And as my baristas slowly weaned me off the sugary syrup (two pumps, to half pumps, to merely showing the latte to the syrup), I learned that cafés came in different flavours too.
Bank&Albert had a business feel, but came with comfy armchairs for heavy reading sessions. The Elgin St. location had a little patio for summer studying, and it’s location and space was ideal for group sessions. But Bank&Gilmour was my true love. Armed with a reloadable gift card funded by my parents (studying in cafés was getting me straight As, so they happily enabled my addiction), I was there nearly every day. I learned café etiquette (share tables, buy stuff, tip well, use headphones). I was that kid who would sit behind a mountain of texts on postmodern political theory and work out my Very Important Thoughts for hours on such brilliant texts such as Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto as a prescient illustration of our technosocial present. (Yeah.)
After I graduated, I kept up my habit of writing in cafés. First in a notebook, little thoughts and stories. Then, once I started to grow serious about writing, I took my laptop with me. I moved cities, tested out different flavours of cafés, and found the elements that worked best for me:
- Friendly Baristas – These are not just the givers of the magical caffeine, they are the people who set the tone for the space. Be kind to them, and tip well.
- Light – Even cafés within the same company will have different set-ups. Big windows and natural wood really lift my mood.
- Space – Not too crowded, not too cavernous. Shared tables are great because you are only taking up the space you need.
- Coffee – This one will be higher up on the list for some people, but I can usually find a blend I like anywhere, as long as it’s high-quality and fair trade.
Many cafés could have all these elements and be perfectly suitable spaces to write. For me, I need a heavy dose of an elusive fifth element: Vibe.
Vibe is the magic that holds a café together. It’s the combination of the spirits of the baristas and café patrons, the neighbourhood, the décor, and the intentions of the space. Some cafés get a business-like vibe, good for serious discussions, bad for creativity. Some have a too-cool-for-this vibe that distracts me from my work. It’s the thing that’s hard to put your finger on until you look up and realize you’ve doubled your word count goal. It’s the thing that tips the balance when wavering on your commitment to write. It pulls you in, makes you anticipate the pleasure of a solid day’s work. It feeds the magic of hitting that flow state while writing your opus.
Authors are drawn to many different kinds of writing spots. Some prefer solitude, some need busy spaces, some require a special room, others just space at the kitchen table or a favourite desk. The habits we form as authors are more than just superstitions to ward off writer’s block. They help to create the psychological space we need to write. Creating that space for yourself is a commitment to your writing.
And so, for two months, I searched high and low for a new spot. Some that I found were too far away (looking at you, Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis), others impractical for a variety of reasons including cold weather and work schedule, and many were just lovely…but not the right fit.
I settled into a pattern of trekking out to one new writing spot on Saturdays after finding a great barista at a café beyond my usual range, but the rest of the week I was lost, bereft, untethered from my practice. And then, while searching out a café for an afternoon writing work date with a friend, we happened to end up in a café on my beloved Queen St. West that I had previously written off. I begrudgingly ordered my coffee and set up my laptop… and within the hour had written more than I’d been able to manage in weeks. And so the next day I cautiously returned…and discovered one of my favourite baristas had taken up residence. Familiar faces began to appear, smiles and how-do-you-dos and friendly waves that make an author’s day. And within the week, I had blown right past my word count goals and worked through a tricky bit of plotting too!
And so, I am a café orphan no more. I am settling into my favourite writing spot with a new appreciation for not judging a book by its cover and giving second chances when deserved. Writing can happen anywhere, at any time, but there’s something magical about finding your perfect spot. I’ve been fortunate to find many (credited in the acknowledgements of my books of course), and I hope that you find yours too.
A ridiculous amount of coffee is consumed as part of the creation of these books. A little coffee goes a long way towards getting the next book faster, and is greatly appreciated!