We all need a place to go where our minds can expand beyond daily constraints. We’re met with expectations at work, the need to unwind at home, and the desire to socialize at bars and restaurants. But if you’re lucky, you have a place to go where your mind turns away from the straight line of to-do lists into the curve of new ideas.
I’ve been lucky enough to find a few such spaces in life, from coffee shops to beaches to long drives along mountainous roads. But where nature helps me break out of my perspective, a really great coffee shop sets my mind humming with creative ideas. This is an ode to some of the coffee shops that have opened my mind — and changed my life.
It All Started at a Place Called “The Buzz”
I was in high school when I discovered my first coffee shop (if you can imagine it, those were the days before you could find a Starbucks on every corner). The coffee shop sat on the edge of the University of Cincinnati’s campus and was called “The Buzz.” It was in an old two-story building, and you’d order on the landing between the first and second floors, the first of which had seating and the second of which sold used CDs.
That was the perfect time in my life to find such a place, as I was feeling very much a fish out of water in my all-girls Catholic high school. It had been my dream to go to the local art high school, but I wasn’t allowed to go. The Buzz was a place where I felt I could fit in more than in the hallways of my high school, and you could find me there on a Saturday night having their “Amazing Mocha” while my classmates were partying and drinking beer. I was right where I wanted to be.
Spending A Random Friday at Sitwell’s
Once I got to college, I was pretty tired of not fitting in, so when I was embraced by a group of kids that were much friendlier than most of my high school classmates, I jumped into their lifestyle.
I was still different, though. Even though my college was close to home, that 15-minute drive might as well have been two hours — and the kids went to fields, not houses, to party. Very much the city kid, I was just as much a square peg in a round hole as I was in high school. This time, however, I gave in and pretended like I was having fun — even though I would rather have been sitting at The Buzz than drinking in a field.
However, one night after I graduated, I found myself with an assignment to work on and nowhere to do it. By then, I was back in Cincinnati full time, and I found a coffee shop on the other side of UC’s campus called Sitwell’s. I can’t remember how I ended up with an assignment, but I do remember needing to turn it in by Saturday morning. So, instead of going out with friends, I went to Sitwell’s to work.
This was a totally different experience for me. I expected the place either to be empty or full of college kids on dates. Instead, there were other people like me needing to do work on the weekend and preferring to do it in this cozy spot. My night turned from dread of missing out on going out to more contentment than I felt in years. Could it really be, I thought, that other people enjoy sitting at a coffee shop on the weekends instead of partying? It was a revelation.
Falling in Love at Ost Cafe
The year I found Sitwell’s was the year I knew it was time for me to make a change. I’d always dreamed of moving to New York or California (or both), and I wasn’t getting any younger. When I finally found my way to New York, I expected every weekend to be fueled with interesting people and creative endeavors.
I made a mistake, however, in assuming all of those things would come my way. I went to work and home every day, talking to my roommates and wondering why I didn’t feel any different than I did in Cincinnati. Finally, one of my roommates dragged me out of the house to a book reading — reminding me if I wanted to fill my life with creativity, I would need to go out and find it.
Shortly after that, I discovered what would become my favorite coffee shop: Ost Cafe. Ost was tucked into a corner on Avenue A in the East Village — but it felt like it could have just as easily been in Paris. An entire wall was covered with French doors that opened all the way in the summer, enabling me to sit inside and write while enjoying the outdoor breeze. What’s more, it was one of those places where everyone seemed to know each other, and you could count on finding someone to talk to whether it was first thing in the morning or nearly midnight.
Ost became a second home for me. I learned to write fiction there, I met interesting people, and I got a reprieve when I needed it from my four roommates. I was there so often that one of my friends said I’d end up meeting my future husband there.
What do you know, she was right.
Matt and I met more than a year before we started dating, and we shared a love for doing our work at Ost (me writing novels, him writing computer code). He was too shy to talk to me but a barista introduced us, and we eventually became acquaintances and then friends. He proposed to me there just over a year after we started dating —and a year after that, one of the owners of Ost married us at a local community garden.
Ost was the place where I learned to expand my writing in ways I was too scared to try before. It was also the place where I learned to enjoy being alone, while also learning to be brave enough to talk to total strangers, which seems to be the only way Matt and I would have ever met.
Ost is no longer open today, and I’ll always feel a hole in the neighborhood where this special place used to be.
We All Need a Creative Space
Without Ost, I’ve struggled to find a coffee shop that feels even remotely the same. New shops are popping up all the time, but high rent forces them into smaller and smaller spaces — leaving them too crowded to enjoy anything more than a quick chat with the barista. That said, I’ve finally learned how to carve a creative space for myself at home.
What about you? No matter what you’re working on, try to find a place to go where your mind can open in ways it can’t anywhere else. Not only might that place help you produce the best writing you’ve ever done, you might even meet some special people that love creativity as much as you do.
As easy as it is to hide behind our computers, we still need to live life to write about it.