“If you really think about it…”

October 8, 2010

Compass Coffee Exterior

Is anyone else surprised that white plastic lawn chairs have survived consumer product natural selection as long as they have?

In the last couple weeks I’ve visited two coffee crashes that were among the first I landed in when I first moved to this area. Compass Coffee on Main St. in Vancouver and Common Grounds on Hawthorne in Portland both casually and humbly occupy their spaces only blocks away from their higher-traffic neighbors (Mon Ami and The Fresh Pot, respectively). Both are reliable and comfy, with no fuss and all the essentials. They are well-dressed coffee-drinking spaces with tables, chairs, board games, wi-fi (duh), and a great selection.

What’s funny is while I visited these spaces several weeks ago, I didn’t really think of them until I found myself sipping chai drink on a late evening in Starbucks. I wanted so badly to be anyplace than this generic coffee pit. That then got me thinking: how could I love Compass Coffee and Common Grounds for really looking like coffee shops while bemoaning every Starbucks, Tully’s and Peet’s for looking the same?

Easy. (Hint: skip to the last sentence of this post. You really don’t want to read this.)

cup of coffee at Common Grounds

I have a picture of the Common Grounds interior, but my shoulder is in it.

In my experience, art consistently follows one rule:

Art establishes an expectation, and creates conflict by either going with or against that expectation.

Good art follows an additional rule:

A work of art presents a series of elements which must, in the end, find a balance to create satisfaction.

Whether it’s charcoal paintings, an independent film, a break dance routine, a haiku, a lego sculpture, or a classical symphony, all are essentially (and subjectively) judged by these standards. It’s what keeps art interesting, it’s what keeps life interesting, and it’s what keeps me searching for new coffee shops and bookstores.

Drip coffee at Compass Coffee

More Compass. I know I'm being unfair to Common Grounds, but seriously, my shoulder is in the other picture.

I can count on walking into a Starbucks in Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Toledo, New York, and North Carolina and ending up in the exact same place getting served the exact same drink with the exact same options with the exact same ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s that same notion that allows us to continually enjoy pop music, and sitcoms, and breakfast cereal. Unfortunately, while there may be balance in consistency, there’s none in predictability.

It’s like hearing a new artist cover a song you’ve heard a hundred times before. It gives you something you’ve experienced countless times before, for the first time. Of course, isn’t visiting the same indie shop ten dozen times the same as visiting the same Starbucks ten dozen times? No. I go to Compass Coffee, and I know that I’m at 304 Main Street, Vancouver, WA. I drop in Common Grounds Coffeehouse and I know I’m on Hawthorne boulevard. I go to Starbucks, or McDonald’s, or Target, or Best Buy, and I’m in all of them from Seattle to St. Petersburg. I’m everywhere, but more accurately nowhere.

In short: Vancouver needs another coffee shop that stays open until 9:30pm.

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