Matthew Bell: The Emperor's New Clothes (13/05/12)

Ever since 'Friends', coffee shops have ruled the high street. Our writer debunks the myth that they are still cool

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Remember the late Nineties, when we all watched Friends and spoke with rising inflections? Overnight, we stopped being a nation of tea-drinkers. We wanted to be like Ross and Phoebe and hang out at the Central Perk drinking coffee! Yay! Suddenly, there was a coffee shop on every corner. Private Eye ran a cartoon in which a man was giving directions: "Turn left at Starbucks, then carry on til you get to Starbucks; go right at the Starbucks..."

Then came the internet. Websites! Emails! Exciting! And then Wi-Fi. Websites! Emails! The chance to work anywhere! I remember one advert for a laptop that boasted you could "Send emails from the beach!" That's a bit daft, I thought: one is a workplace activity, the other a place for building sand-castles.

And it was about then that the coffee shop went into decline. No sooner had we learned to model our lives on Friends, slouching on couches and slurping venti moccaccinos, then along came the laptop army. With their go-anywhere dongles, they moved into Starbucks and started working.

Now, researchers from the University of North Carolina have identified this group as the coffee shop conquerors. They're the ones sitting alone, smugly letting us know they're freelance poets or flexi-workers, holding Skype meetings and writing novels. According to the report, Dibs! Customer Territorial Behaviours, the regular clientele find them an off-putting presence and coffee shops are losing money. Chains such as Starbucks, which provide free Wi-Fi, are effectively providing office space gratis, as these latte labourers view the price of their drink as "rent".

I once tried to write in a coffee shop, and I can confirm it's a dreadful experience: noisy, tables too small. Just as you've settled down to work, someone thrusts a buttock in your face as they squeeze past – "Whoops! Sorr-ee!" – spilling froth onto your laptop.

So the American dream has failed. A coffee shop is no longer a fun place to hang out with your ditsy guitar-strumming friends. You go, buy your coffee, and get the hell out. Like the Italians, who don't even bother to sit down. Or we could go back to drinking tea. After all, the coffee at Starbucks is rubbish.

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