Yesterday I listened to a podcast interview of the owner of one of my favorite coffee shops. As I listened, I started to think about the role coffee shops have played in my life and in my creativity. And that got me thinking about the importance of creative spaces.
We all need to have a space that nurtures our creativity. For some, it might be a specific room in their house. For others, it might be a special tree or other outdoor space. For me, it's coffee shops. Here's my story about how coffee shops have helped me to find my creativity (and so much more).
The First: The Buzz
My first coffee shop was called The Buzz and sat on the edge of the University of Cincinnati's campus. It was in a two-story house with seating on the first floor and used CDs for sale on the second. The Buzz had the eclectic vibe that was common in coffee shops in the 90s, with mismatched furniture, low lighting, and chess boards you could borrow.
It also had something called the "Amazing Mocha," which started a lifelong love affair for me with the combination of chocolate and espresso. The Amazing Mocha wasn't just a mocha; it was a mocha made with homemade chocolate whipped cream and garnished with a chocolate-covered espresso bean. With my sweet tooth, it's no wonder that I became hooked for life.
I started going to The Buzz when I was in high school, and it became a sort of refuge for me. High school, though not fun for most people, was a frustrating time for me because I wanted to go to the art school but was instead forced to go to an all-girls Catholic high school. I had little in common with most people there, especially since I came from the wrong side of the tracks, and I was heartbroken. The art school wouldn't have just allowed me to more rigorously study dance — it would have exposed me to other kids like myself. Instead, I was stuck in a school that made me feel like I had to either conform to fit in or resign myself to being an outcast. I chose the latter.
But I could be myself at The Buzz. My closest friend at the time introduced me to the coffee shop, and she also introduced me to her art school classmates who went there. On Saturday nights, while kids at my high school were going to parties and drinking beer, I was sipping on a mocha at The Buzz and talking to all kinds of different people. I was home.
Sadly, The Buzz is no longer in business, having closed some time after I graduated from college. But I'll never forget how it gave me a place to be myself at a time when I felt stuck in every possible way.
The Game Changer: Ost CafE
Many years after my introduction to The Buzz, I found a coffee shop called Ost Cafe in the East Village of New York. I was in my late 20s and had been living in New York for a few years, but until then had mostly been going to Starbucks since I lived on the Upper East Side. (These days the Upper East Side has a thriving independent coffee scene, but that was not the case in the early 2000s.)
I discovered Ost Cafe shortly after moving to the East Village, as it was only one block away from my apartment. Sitting on the corner of 12th Street and Avenue A, Ost was a people watcher’s paradise — and it also had the best mocha I'd ever had. Ost might not have had homemade chocolate whipped cream, but it did make the mocha with homemade chocolate.
But the chocolate isn’t really what made Ost special. It was like I was transported to Europe every time I walked in. The walls on the Avenue A side were french doors, so on nice days they'd be opened wide giving the cafe a breezy indoor/outdoor feel. And if you went there more than once, you were instantly a regular. The owners were often there, the baristas knew most people’s orders, and it was easy to become friends with the other regulars.
The world just seemed to slow down at Ost. At the same time, the coffee shop's bustling energy almost gave me more of a buzz than the caffeine.
It didn’t take long for Ost to become my home away from home. I was living with four roommates at the time, so my apartment wasn't the best place to write. I made a deal with myself that I could buy a mocha from Ost every day if I showed up early enough to get in 30 minutes of writing before I had to leave for work. This was a big deal for me because I was on a tight budget (as evidenced by living with four roommates), packing all of my lunches and foregoing dinners out so I could afford to hang out at the coffee shop and still make my bills.
But it was worth it because that's when I discovered the power of the daily writing habit. The truth is, I often only spent about 20 minutes writing every morning. I would first chat with the owner of Ost, Alex, who was typically the first one working in the mornings. He was friendly and funny and always made me feel welcome. He even joked that he renamed the mocha spoon the "Shannon spoon" since I always bought the first mocha of the day. I didn't mind taking my time getting into my writing when I could start my day with a friendly chat and then ease into my work with the soft morning light shining on my table.
Plus, that 20 minutes a day created a momentum that flowed through to the weekends. I easily spent two or three hours every Saturday and Sunday at Ost (often sitting at the counter so I wouldn't take up precious table space) and working away at my writing. I was there so often that my previous roommates, who had since moved to the East Village themselves, joked that I'd end up meeting my future husband at Ost.
And, what do you know, they were right.
Ultimately, in my time at Ost, I wrote two novels and met the man I'd eventually marry, Matt. Alex even officiated our wedding for us. It doesn't get more special than that.
Unfortunately, Ost’s East Village location is now also out of business, though there is a location in the Lower East Side. The East Village has never never felt the same since. I doubt I'll ever be able to walk past the corner of 12th Street and Avenue A without feeling a tinge of sadness that this creative space is gone.
My Second Life: Ritual Coffee Roasters
Not a year after meeting Matt, he and I packed our bags and moved to San Francisco. I had grown tired of my office job and struggling as a novelist and wanted to try working in startups. Knowing it could take years to become a published author, I craved having a day job that would enable me to have more of an impact.
As has been the case many times in my life, I got very lucky. One month after we moved to San Francisco, the startup I'd been freelancing for told me they were hiring an intern and asked if I'd like to interview. I did and was given the job, and this was ultimately the job that would change my life forever. It was there that I first got paid to write, where I learned all about content strategy, and where I fell in love with tech.
Finding an apartment in San Francisco wasn't so easy, though, and it took us eight months to land one that would become our true home. It was in The Mission District and sat one block away from Dolores Park. It was also about a seven-minute walk from a coffee shop called Ritual Coffee Roasters.
By this point, Matt and I had searched all around the city for a coffee shop that might feel like Ost. We never found it, but we did find a place called Coffee Bar, which was built in a beautiful loft space with massive windows and inspiring decor. The trouble was, Coffee Bar closed around five or six, and Matt was a late riser. By the time Matt woke up and showered, it was usually too late to make the trek from our then-apartment in Soma and still have much time to do anything there.
So, when we moved to The Mission, we were ecstatic to find Ritual. It was a coffee shop that was open later (until 8:00 pm), and that had more of the eclectic vibe I was used to in an independent coffee shop.
Truth be told, I didn't get a lot of writing done at Ritual, or any other coffee shop in San Francisco. Once I started a job that had me writing every day, I struggled to regain the momentum I had on my creative writing. I also realized that I didn't really want to write novels. It was simply a means to an end for me — since I wasn't a journalist I couldn't see any other way to get paid to write. But when the world of content strategy opened up to me, I saw that I could get paid to write what I really loved to write, essays, and that was the end of my fiction writing.
But I was a fish out of water in San Francisco. It took me quite a while to get used to life in a city that was physically beautiful but also much quieter, less personable, and closed early. Although I had finally found myself in work, the weekends reminded me that I didn't quite fit in. Ritual, like The Buzz, gave me a place to feel like myself again.
Nowadays I'm back in New York and, somewhat ironically, missing San Francisco. Moving back showed me that San Francisco had eventually become my home. I miss the days of camaraderie in an early-stage startup, I miss being able to drive to the beach on a whim, and I miss living in a world where I can spend Sundays with friends who are making things instead of brunching.
What's more, Ost closed two years after we moved back, and the closing showed me how much Ost was a home to me. Although more coffee shops than ever are popping up in the city, not one of them feel even close to what Ost felt like. It seems that the quality of coffee has gone up, but coffee shops themselves have gotten more transactional. Even when you can meet regulars and get to know the baristas, the spaces are so small that you can hardly find a seat for five minutes, much less an hour. And instead of being asked to share a table with a stranger with whom you might soon become friends, now you'll be asked to share a table so an Instagram influencer can set up their shot.
The good news is, Ritual Coffee Roasters is going strong — even updating their space to what you see in the image above and expanding to new locations — and I'm always on the search for my next favorite coffee shop/creative space in New York. Even if it takes a while to find, I'll certainly have fun trying.