Thoughts on the radical potential of coffee shops

Hastings and St Leonards are home to a large variety of cafés and coffee shops. Last issue (163), we featured a new addition to London Road (Milk + Hustle). The following article is written by Stu and Danielle (of Stooge Coffee), inspired by a discussion with Pasha Milburn back in August. She initially got in touch with them after reading their self-reflective and eloquent statements on social media (@stoogecoffee) in the wake of the BLM protests in June. In their conversation together, they discussed the issues around ethical coffee, questioned how coffee shops can promote a sense of community and considered the radical potential that coffee shops can hold.  

Drinking coffee the ‘ethical’ way

Customers compliment us baristas on the quality of the coffee at Stooge. However, our work is relatively unimportant (merely gift wrapping and window dressing), as it’s the people who grow, process and roast the beans that contribute most of the expertise and deserve far more praise than we do. We chose to use beans from Pharmacie Coffee Roasters (Hove) as they had a growing reputation for their commitment to their ethics and a passion for working with interesting coffees from around the world. Every bean Pharmacie roast has been sourced through direct trade. This means that the coffee importers work closely with the growers/producers, and the beans never get mixed with lower grade coffee to be auctioned off on the commodity markets. Unlike commodity coffee – or indeed Fairtrade, which is only slightly better – the producers are fully involved and fairly paid for their expertise, earning far more than if their beans were sold via the commodity route. 

At present, the speciality coffee industry only accounts for a relatively small proportion of all the coffee consumed globally. Therefore, growing for the speciality market is not currently a viable option for all farms as there are occasions where growers need to sell their harvest and cannot link up with speciality buyers at the right time. Regardless, the way the speciality coffee industry is improving consumer knowledge of how coffee is grown and produced is a force for good – it normalises placing value on the culture, labour and livelihoods of people in distant countries.

Danielle from Stooge Coffee
PICTURE: Stooge Coffee

Is the coffee shop really for ‘all’?

Cafés naturally generate spontaneous and serendipitous encounters between open and caffeinated minds. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg defined them as ‘third places’, where people come to relax and meet away from the home or workplace. In our three years of trading, we’ve already received a lot of pleasure from witnessing and participating in the conversations that come from this role. 

We’ve always felt a kind of romanticised affection for the historical precedent of the ‘Penny Universities’ that London coffee houses came to be known as in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were cheap places where folk from different classes, stimulated by caffeine, could meet to discuss and debate radical ideas and opinions. This is why many believe that coffee house culture played an important part in the 17th century Enlightenment as the Western World finally caught up to the level of scientific and philosophical discourse that had already spread through the coffee-drinking Ottoman regions centuries earlier. However, it is also important to note that London ‘Penny Universities’ were overwhelmingly white and male – women weren’t welcome and some also functioned as hubs for the slave trade. Café culture has always held this uncomfortable duality, existing as sanctuaries for ‘free-thinking’ that also profit from oppression. 

Bearing this duality in mind, when our friends made a ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’ plaque for the ‘Hastings Rally Against Racism’ event we decided to display it in our shop window after the rally was over. Leaving it there was an impulsive gesture, but it’s facilitated much interest, with customers often asking us what it means. We had a conversation about it with one older gentleman who told us he’d felt left behind by the recent waves of protest. When we cleared his table, he emphatically thanked us for being so willing to engage with him. His words caused us to reflect on how making these conversations feel more accessible could perhaps aid in overriding much of the white fragility, awkwardness and defensiveness around issues like anti-racism. 

Stu from Stooge Coffee
PICTURE: Stooge Coffee

Reflections

We realise that our shop may still feel inaccessible to many, and we hold ourselves completely accountable to this and are continually trying to improve. In our minds, the last thing we want is to be a beacon of gentrified colonisation that only attracts the DFLs and OFBs. Along with our openness to engage in conversation with everyone who comes in for a drink, the way in which we’ve modelled our shop is also aimed at creating a more accessible, welcoming space. We hope that the offbeat playfulness and hand-finished elements of our interior design makes the café feel more relaxed, intimate and unpretentious. We have a chalkboard in our entrance hall to publicise and celebrate local happenings, community initiatives and independent businesses – many aren’t promoted offline so it’s our way of showing gratitude and support for our network. 

Once we have more of a handle on how the pandemic is going, we’ll be looking to host more events, exhibitions and projects to build on this vibe. We are gradually creating a library of books, zines and publications featuring creative, radical, critical and experimental ideas that can hopefully become a shared resource for anyone in the area. 

The current pandemic, renewed Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing climate emergency have forced us all to reckon with the fact that dismantling white, capitalist, patriarchal, ableist, classist entitlement is a matter of life and death. Protesting and direct action are absolutely vital but so are slower, less confrontational forms of activism that can be integrated into daily lives and routines such as having a drink and discussion in a coffee shop. We believe coffee shops are ideal spaces for fostering empathy, curiosity and connectedness between strangers; healing processes that are much needed to overcome the alienation, ignorance and trauma caused from past/present oppressive power structures and the stresses of modern life. 


Stooge Coffee originally began as Stu’s project. Initial ideas were to open a multi-functional workshop/gallery/café space within a pop-up gallery Danielle was running with friends on Kings Road, but the plans fell through. About a year later, however, he was put in touch with some local illustrators who wanted to open an ‘illustration café’ on Trinity Street. Hi-Store opened as a collaborative venue in July 2017, before Stu solely took over the whole shop as Stooge Coffee in January 2020. Danielle and, more recently Ai, joined the team after years of working as baristas elsewhere. 


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