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London Is Tearing Itself Apart Because of Coffee Shop Sidewalk Signs

Capitalism, classism, and a forced sense of quirkiness are colliding on the streets of the UK capital.

by Clive Martin
Nov 11 2015, 8:00pm

Photo by Clive Martin

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Coffee shops: the opium dens of New Britain, mini Chelsea Hotels where the silicon beatniks jam back and forth, "fleshing ideas out onto a one-pager" and "connecting with your urban tastemakers." Mostly frequented by men in red socks giddy off bottled ginger beer and staffed by overly-familiar Spanish baristas with barcode neck tattoos and a few garys left over from the last Villalobos night at Fabric tucked in their mocha-splattered aprons, they are the breeding ground for Boris's Beer Hall Putsch 2015. So much so that I've heard Foxtons actually use the presence of a trendy coffee shop as an indicator of areas of growth to target.

These are not just places to get coffee. If you want a coffee you can go to fucking Pret. If you want a lifestyle, you can go to a coffee shop, flick through the new NME, chill out to some Caribou, and stave off the crushing loneliness of the freelance world, one Americano at a time.

Photo by Joe Goodman

And in such an oversaturated market, coffee shops are constantly trying to stand out. Short of actually starting to murder each other like crack dealers would, they've resorted to an increasingly desperate attempts at viral publicity through the blackboard signs they leave outside, that sit in the middle of the street, begging you to come in with evermore shit slogans and jokes.

But where once they were usually cute little plays on existing gags and puns about coffee, famous quotes hilariously altered to be about coffee, flow charts about coffee and hangovers, or the occasional "Je Suis Charlie," they seem to have taken a turn into disturbing territory.

First came the imaginatively named "Brick Lane Coffee," which put up a sign saying "no poor people" after Fuck Parade's impromptu protest, in which a bunch of SOAS students in Uniqlo hoodies threw paint at a tourist attraction, while, as journalist Ben Machell put it, the north east of England lost almost the entire steel industry.

During the ensuing predictable Twitter outrage, it wasn't hard to feel for Brick Lane Coffee. Essentially, it was a bit of gallows humor that'd been taken out of context by a few righteous social media commentators, that might even be quite funny, had it not been just that little bit too close to the bone.

But all such feelings quickly dissipated this week, when they dropped their latest sign: "Sorry No Uggs (Slag Wellies)," making them sound like the commenters on some turn-of-the-noughties "chav-bashing" forum, and totally misunderstanding that nobody wears Uggs anymore anyway. Especially not on Brick Lane.

Then, Bermondsey's "Fuckoffee" stepped into defend Brick Lane Coffee on Twitter. Was this a show of solidarity from a fellow bean-merchants across the river? Not quite: They're owned by the same people (as well as another one, the tastefully named "Jonestown"), meaning that this little Twitter conversation is essentially the same people talking to themselves, on Twitter. We approached the owner for comment, but he just said "it's a bit of fun," and walked off.

Soon enough, they upped their edgy brand game (which seems to come straight out of the liner notes to a Bloodhound Gang album) to new levels by moving into the domain of men's rights activism, drawing a bizarre parallel between the treatment of their dubious gags, and responses to female genital mutilation.

I'll have a subreddit thread with an extra shot of hazelnut, please.

But where do these weird, public lapses of judgment come from? I think it's got a lot to do with the way these establishments are forced into imparting a sense of personality, of uniqueness, of being a place run by a real person, with a real beard, and hand-made shoes, who serves real coffee and real tuna and chorizo and manchego melts.

As chains become more and more prominent on the high street, a reaction towards something more "real" has built up pace. But real people quite often say the wrong things. And as the affluent public fetishize authenticity and artisan quality more and more, they're going to find some authentically grim views, especially if the blackboard outside your shop is your version of the market seller's "4 for a pound" cry. I mean, imagine if pub landlords started writing their thoughts on the world outside their beer gardens. They'd be up before a hate crimes commission in before you could say "gentrification."

But there's a more serious issue here. If you look at the basic ideologies behind the modern coffee shop, it's little wonder that people who run these places might have some pretty reprehensible views, because they are, in effect, some of the cutthroat capitalists out there.

Don't let the Red Wings and the Nigel Cabourn jumpers fool you: These people are basically selling drinkable oil. They buy cheap, they sell high, and they sell it to you hard. They target areas of economic growth, then they stamp their lifestyle on it, and gradually hike-up the prices. They're cultural prospectors, braving the tramps and rudeboys for a few years to get that big pay-off at the end of it. They might dress like American workers from the 1930s, but they behave like their bosses. Making a few dad jokes about people in Ugg boots or naming a café after a mass suicide is small fry compared to what they're really getting up to.

Yet despite this profiteering cynicism at the heart of what they do, they dress it all up in a fake, post-beatnik, counter-culture swagger. It gives their whole shtick a horrible dishonesty that almost makes me yearn for a half-cooked ham & cheese croissant under the anti-scag lighting in the downstairs of the Oxford Street Starbucks. At least nobody at Starbucks seems to think they're serving treble espressos to Kerouac and Cassidy at The City Lights Bookstore in 1953.

Whether the signs are cute and funny, or weird and classist, remember the message is the same: buy our coffee, enjoy the ambience, and fuck off.

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