As campus libraries become increasingly congested, the visit to the corner coffee shop acquires a special urgency. Like most college towns, Providence is home to a lively network of coffee purveyors and consumers. Their fluctuating tastes reflect the tensions between efficiency and quality, authentiticity and availability.
What keeps the coffee culture brewing in Providence, according to Nathan Hann, coffee director for Blue State Coffee, is the “friendly environment” it promotes. Hann, who managed both of the shops in Providence for eight months, explained, “If you have a question, anyone in the coffee shop can help you and is more than willing to help, and that is something that is rampant across the coffee culture.”
Luke Johnston, a Starbucks barista on Thayer Street, cited New England as an especially active community of coffee drinkers. But he admitted that Starbucks is a lot more popular in Providence than in Massachusetts, where he used to live.
According to Hann, all the coffee shops work collaboratively and “basically build the coffee culture in Providence together. The more coffee shops we open up, the better.” He said that he has experienced nothing but friendly competition with other coffee shops.
Johnston, on the other hand, admitted that “perhaps our competition is with Coffee Exchange because a lot of local people are loyal to that shop.”
But students interviewed consistently identified Starbucks and Blue State as their go-to coffee spots.
As much as Manuel Contreras ’16 enjoys going to Coffee Exchange on Wickenden Street for the “romantic idea of going off-campus” — and he maintains these bi-weekly “man walks” with a friend to contemplate life — he often resorts to Blue State or Starbucks “out of necessity when I really need to stay up,” he said.
“Who wants to walk all the way to Wickenden?” asked Mathew Kelley ’14, though he admitted to occasionally patronizing Coffee Exchange.
While students generally agree that coffee culture exists, some do not agree on its definition and its benefits. A self-proclaimed Starbucks regular, Kelley prefers coming in by himself, sitting down and doing work. “I really like the cafe atmosphere — I can’t work in a library. I really like the ambience of the cafe. I really like the baristas, too. They’re really nice to me and tend to know my order.”
Ellen Taylor ’17, who hails from Seattle, regretted that while she frequents small coffee shops back home, she now goes to Starbucks almost exclusively. “I can sit for a while and do work, because I really do like that culture of sitting at a coffee shop and working,” she said.
Rachel Ossip ’15 offered a slightly different perspective. Though she started drinking coffee at a young age and enjoys having coffee to the point of “definitely relying on it too much,” she admits that she does not feel part of coffee culture. “Coffee shop culture contains a lot of people who work well in a public or social space,” she said. “But work is usually difficult for me … in a hustle and bustle situation. … I tend to like bringing coffee with me as I go back to the studio or library.”
Quality matters, which is all the more reason that students go to coffee shops and strengthen coffee culture. Kelley admitted that, though he qualifies for free coffee as a worker for Brown University Dining Services, he prefers buying coffee from coffee shops.
“Ratty coffee sucks — Blue Room, libraries … they’re all the same,” Contreras said. “They’re like lies to my body. I’m telling my body, ‘It’s going to keep you up,’ but it really doesn’t.”
Though Anthony Stott ’15 also often purchases specialty drinks like cappuccinos or caramel mochas from Blue State, he conceded, “Coffee actually really bothers my stomach, so I only drink it when I desperately need the caffeine.” Instead, he identified his “tea addiction” as the real problem, and he often goes to Tealuxe to buy matcha, a green tea. Taylor also agreed that Tealuxe serves as an alternative from Starbucks for her.
For those who dislike campus coffee but do not want to spend too much money on drinks at coffee shops, Contreras said he highly recommends heading to the Rhode Island School of Design. “RISD coffee is the best by far — there’s … I don’t know, cocaine or speed or something in there.”