SHORT #19: Coffee, Burnt Toast & Tobacco
Can tiny neighborhood cafes become a reality in the United States?
The morning before we left Osaka, I had breakfast at Shikō. The set menu at this kissaten comes with a hard boiled egg, ham sandwich, some fruit, and a cup of coffee, as well as a few old chain smoking men, and some factory workers taking part in their ritual newspaper reading before heading to work. There is also a seat where the table is an old arcade game, but I’ve never played it. The breakfast will set you back $4.00, which is extravagant for this neighborhood.
The smoking old men are allowed to do their thing here before noon, which in a way makes perfect sense. Old chain smoking men are the only reliable customer base on weekday mornings. Though I am not much of a smoker, somehow the smell — coffee, burnt toast and tobacco — is nostalgic. Maybe it reminds me of my grandfather, or of some other random childhood memory when the smoking section still existed in California. Whatever it is, I certainly don’t mind it.
There are other cafes in this neighborhood, too. Less extravagant, smaller places with just eight or ten seats, where a morning set could be had for just $3.50. In general, you still get the coffee and toast and egg and chain smoking companions at these other cafes. No sandwich though. Yet these other cafes have their perks. One offers a big fruit bowl. Another serves a really thick buttery toast.
These are the kinds of decisions one has to make in an old Japanese neighborhood. Are you with the thick toast crew, the fruit bowl crew, or the sandwich crew?
How would one make such an array of tiny cafes possible in other cities?
The geek in me has a few observations:
Neighborhood Zoning Laws
Zoning laws in the United States typically separate industry, commerce, and residential areas. This made some sense at the dawn of the industrial revolution (have you seen the smoke from a 19th century factory?) but the world is a much different place today. Japanese zoning laws harken back in some ways, to pre-industrial times, when ‘industries’ (mostly hand craft) were actually located within one’s home. As a policy of the national government, zoning laws allow relatively non-polluting businesses to operate in suburban residential districts (the block we lived on in Osaka for instance, has a tea roasting factory, handmade spectacle shop, tool wholesaler, furniture maker, printing press, Chinese pub, curry shop, cafe, bicycle shop, barber, and probably others that I am forgetting.) So building a big steel mill in a residential neighborhood is a no-no, but a small owner-occupied shop that does not spout pollution is just fine. Overall, the Japanese system of zoning is a remarkable work that supports the proliferation of safe, clean, walkable neighborhoods filled with small businesses. Maybe more on that another time.
My generation grew up in a time and place where producing things, buying things, and consuming things were all done in distant areas of the city. It seems natural for anyone who grew up in this world to say “well, of course you need to drive across town to the supermarket, and then drive across town to a restaurant, and then drive back home.” It is strange to think that a home might also be a cafe or a small production facility or a small shop. Then again, when Americans travel to East Asia, or to an old European town, we rave about these very arrangements, and then lament their absence when we return home. Well then, maybe it is not so crazy an idea to try this out in our cities after all.
Political and Legal Support
Put plainly, existing laws (everything from health and safety to fire codes) are structured in a way that makes small neighborhood cafes either legally or financially impossible (usually both). While many countries have clear, simple, cost-effective ways for neighborhood cafes to exist, trying this in the United States will lead either lead you to cease and desist notices or a jail cell. We need legal structures that value and support the small and local, instead of continuing to prop up extractive monoliths.
There is an odd way in my experience, where most of the contracts that enable small local businesses to continue are not written on paper. They are social contracts. From the consumer point of view, we develop a ritual of continuing to visit a particular shop that we like, even if a fancy new chain opens up next to it. From the shop owner point of view, they maintain a fair price for their customers, never raising their price for the sake of increasing their profit margin, and often letting a profit margin shrink to a point. This mindset is not about cutting costs, but about putting service to the community above personal financial profit. Likewise, many landlords also inhabit this cultural mindset. We know a house/shop that has been paying $50 a month in rent since the 1990s. In the West, we let ‘the market’ dictate rent increases, but in many other parts of the world — especially in the case of this $50 rent — the landlord would only increase rent in the case of an absolute necessity. Here, stability and solidarity within the community are higher values than money. Unfortunately, neighborhood solidarity cannot sustain a local cafe alone if the broader factors above (legal/zoning/cultural) are intent on strangling all that is local. We need then, to broaden that solidarity, to include those who are writing the laws and zoning codes. I believe you tend to call those people politicians. I know a few of them and yes, they are humans too. Perfectly capable of solidarity.
Well now, surely there are other factors. If you have comments or thoughts, feel free to share below, or send a note to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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For those who have been following the Bomunsan Forest Protocols, they will resume next week. See ya’ll then.