SHORT#11: The Art of Ignoring Trends
When we lived in Osaka, Suhee and I would go on at least a few early morning bicycle rides every month to explore kissaten (喫茶店)—the small, old coffee shops that populate much of Japan. This illustrated writing is inspired by visits to these independent shops around our neighborhood. It is a small slice however, and I would love at some point, to draw and write more.
There are a thousand other kissaten like his in this part of Osaka. Except not.
There are a thousand other small, owner-operated coffee shops that have a morning set menu, but none of them are like any of the others; a thousand diverse expressions of what coffee and a small inexpensive morning meal can be; a thousand outcomes of personality manifesting itself as food and drink and décor and manner.
In the Southern neighborhoods, there are shops with strong coffee and weak scrambled eggs, shops with weak coffee, decadent thick buttery toast and strange sculptures adorning the wall, shops with ten styles of egg sandwich where coffee cups rattle on saucers as the trolley passes by a few feet from your seat, and where customers come in straight off the platform.
In the Eastern areas are shops where a scene of billowing smoke and old men reading newspapers is lit through stained glass rose windows, and shops where a group of 70-year-old ladies ride their bicycles every Wednesday at 5:20am for coffee and a catch up, and shops that feel more like a living room where the only customers are from that particular city block.
There are a thousand other shops like his. Except not.
His shop is just like him. That is the only way it could be.
If you mention to him something about the latest trends, or of the new big, sleek coffee shops in the financial district, his eyes might widen for a second before laughing and returning to stewarding boiling eggs—he is known in these parts for his soft boiled eggs.
Then, you might hear him say that “The only certain thing about trends, is they pull you away from who you really are.”
Indeed, he knows the other side of this point well. His shop has been ignoring trends for 50 years. A thousand other shops around here have, too.
At his shop in particular, the coffee and toast is pretty darned good, the atmosphere of 70’s vinyl seats, classical music, and tropical plants is unique to this man.
And his soft boiled eggs, are always perfect.
Why do many American cities have so few small, owner-occupied shops? Certainly high rent is a problem. However, we can largely credit the endless legal and financial barriers—from health codes to commercial kitchen requirements—that were designed and implemented over the course of many decades to favor large enterprises, and to make it nearly impossible for tiny, small-volume, owner-occupied shops to make a living.
Thankfully, today many good-hearted lawyers are helping change these laws, and some states are enacting microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO) laws, that empower individuals to open home restaurants. If your region has opted into the new law, you might have already noticed a boom in backyard restaurants.
If that all sounds strange, keep in mind, many of the tiny neighborhood restaurants in Japan are essentially people’s homes—they just happen to operate a cafe on the first floor, and live on the second floor!
Thanks for reading The Possible City. I’m Patrick, and every week or so I write and illustrate a short story to help us imagine more equitable, resilient, regenerative cities through art and nature. If you enjoyed this one, please subscribe and share it with others.
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