I just came across this unfinished blog post from a year and a half ago, and it made me laugh, so I decided to finish it. I no longer spend all day writing in coffee shops, and the manuscript I mention here has been collecting dust for months, but come summer, I hope to be having more awkward conversations in public and putting more words on the page.
The Unexpected Evolution of Character
I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Recently, I walked into one and saw a man standing in line with his little boy. The man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I claimed a spot at my favorite little table in the corner, grabbed my wallet, and headed to the counter for my large café au lait. The man was still there. Worried that perhaps I did know him and was being weird by not speaking to him, I said, “You look familiar. Do we know each other?”
He said, “I don’t think so. I’m Jeff,” and he offered his hand to shake.
A brief conversation led us to the conclusion that we didn’t know each other but both frequent this coffee shop and had probably seen each other here before. By then it was his turn at the counter. He handed the barista a large glass jug and asked for a refill of the shop’s cold brew coffee while his toddler toddled around between us. By this time, a woman had entered and was standing in line behind me. Out of the blue, she said to me, “Do you like to heat it up?”
I stared at her. I said nothing. No appropriate responses came to mind. After standing there awkwardly for a moment, wondering if her words would make sense if I’d already had some coffee, I said, “Um… what?”
She nodded toward the man in front of me and repeated, “Do y’all like to heat it up?”
Well, this was completely inappropriate. No, I did not like to “heat it up” with this man. I didn’t even know this man. I suddenly, desperately wanted to be safe in my cozy corner table with my headphones on to block out the world, especially crazy women who asked me shockingly inappropriate questions. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, the woman said, “Oh, are you not together?”
Me and Jeff? No! We just met, barely, sort of, in line. It turns out the woman was referring to the coffee. She also likes cold brew coffee, but in the winter she likes to heat it up. Well, not Jeff. He never heats it up. In fact, he likes it better cold in winter. I stood there while they bonded over their favorite beverage until it was finally my turn to order my café au lait and scuttle back to my corner table, slightly scarred by the whole ordeal.
In a way, though, it fit perfectly with what I was struggling with in my current manuscript: I didn’t know who my main character was. I mean, I knew who he was in general. He was a kid being haunted by ghosts who were mad at him for skipping Halloween. But the specifics of the kid—his age, his family situation, his attitude—kept changing, making him feel vague and hard to pin down. I was employing the bracket method I learned in a workshop at The Writing Barn with YA author Ashely Hope Peréz. While writing my messy first draft, I placed brackets around prose that needed to be fixed or blanks that needed to be filled in or story ideas that I wanted to come back to later. It’s a great tool to keep you typing when your brain wants to second-guess or micromanage every little thing, but my brackets were getting out of control.
In one paragraph, my character (whose name kept switching from Donald to Miles) went from being a carefree, ten-year-old orphan to a surly, twelve-year-old kid who resented his parents for going on a vacation without him. At one point he even (briefly) changed gender. I was feeling discouraged about my lack of consistency.
But after my encounter at the counter, things suddenly seemed less dire. I mean, here, in real life, in less than five minutes, a man had gone from being a familiar-looking stranger, to an acquaintance, to my husband with whom I possibly liked to “heat it up,” and back to an acquaintance again.
So I dove back in to my messy manuscript, and I allowed my character to be whoever he/she wanted to be in that moment. I typed and typed and bracketed and bracketed, the only rule that I keep the momentum going forward. And after half an hour, I actually felt closer to my character, who at this point I was sure was a boy named Miles with parents who were alive. Slowly but surely, he began to reveal himself to me, and I felt more comfortable about where we were going together.
Much like Jeff. After all the confusion, I can now say with certainty that Jeff is a man who lives in Austin, has a young son, and likes cold brew coffee, even in the winter. That is all. Our story ends there. Miles’s however, is still going. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
I’ve been a permanent Austin resident for fifteen years now, and I’ve spent a fair amount of that time in coffee shops. These days I get out of the house at least two or three times a week to write in a place where I can go more than twenty minutes without being distracted by a pet. Once in a while, I bring my biggest distraction– my dog Uno– with me, though he usually gets pretty squirmy after a half hour or so. (How dare I suggest he lie down on concrete? Don’t I know that a delicate creature like himself requires at minimum a sofa cushion in order to be comfortable?) Note: We may have made a few mistakes in how we raised our dog.
But back to the point. Austin has no shortage of great coffee shops and I like variety in my writing environment, so I rotate through as many of them as I can. Below you’ll find my top ten favorite Austin coffee shops, in no particular order. (It was hard enough narrowing the list down to ten. I can’t possibly scale them too.)
You should know that I am not a coffee connoisseur. I don’t have a discerning palate when it comes to my café au lait. All I can tell you is that these places have coffee, and I drink it. But I amdiscerning about comfort and atmosphere and originality and charm, things that all the coffee shops on this list possess. Along with wifi and a tolerance for customers who linger for long hours.
Ok, I said I wasn’t going to order this list in any way, but if I’m being honest, there’s a reason why Pacha is in the #1 slot. This cute coffee shop in the neighborhood where I lived for six years holds a special place in my heart. I’ve sat at every table, eaten almost everything on the menu, and have written everything from student essay critiques and thank you notes to poems and novel chapters while sipping a Pacha latte or nibbling a pecan cookie. This place feels like home, and though my commute went from two blocks to twelve miles, I still visit frequently.
Food Situation: Good menu– homemade, organic, and yummy.
Dog Friendly: Yes. Well-behaved dogs are allowed on both front and back porches.
What I Like Best: The painted tables and mismatched chairs and general adorableness.
Drawbacks: Limited parking. And the staff is friendly but sometimes a little forgetful. (I love you guys, but you know it’s true!) 🙂
One Other Thing: About seven years ago, one of my favorite bookmarks fell between the boards of Pacha’s back patio. If anyone ever goes crawling around under there, I’d like it back.
This twenty-four hour coffee shop has changed over the years. The battered old couches and stuffing-sprouted armchairs that used to dominate the inside have been replaced with tables and chairs, allowing for a lot more seating. There’s also a vintage clothing shop and a record store next door and more fun local shops down the street if you need a break from working.
Food Situation: Good, reasonably priced pizza slices and a few other things.
Dog Friendly: Yes. Dogs are allowed on the outside patio.
What I Like Best: The Olivia pizza and the clever way they hung retractable extension cords from the ceiling for the tables not close enough to the wall outlets.
Drawbacks: It’s such a popular place that it’s sometimes tough to find a table for two.
Just up the road from Pacha is Monkey Nest, a coffee shop that really makes good use of its space. There’s not a lot of elbow room in there, but there are plenty of seats even for the busiest times of day. They also have some unique drink options, like the Spicy Monkey Mocha (mocha, cinnamon, & cayenne pepper) and the Chocolate Chimp (coconut mocha latte).
Food Situation: Great menu– Sandwiches, salads, soups, pizza, and baked goods.
Dog Friendly: No. Monkey Nest has no outdoor seating.
What I Like Best: The Greek salad and the cookies with walnut filling.
Drawbacks: It is often freezing inside. Bring a sweater, no matter the weather.
One Other Thing: Monkey Nest has a room called the nest that can be reserved for meetings and private events.
I find myself at Crema quite often these days. Though this South Austin cafe doesn’t have the crunchy, hippie vibe of some of my other favorite haunts, it does have a cozy atmosphere for working and a lot of yummy delights to try. Plus it’s close to home for those days when Mopac is broken and I don’t feel like sitting in traffic.
Food Situation: Great menu– breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, and a daily special that’s often too good to pass up. Not to mention their wonderful baked goods– muffins, cookies, cakeballs, cupcakes, etc.
Dog Friendly: Sort of. Dogs are allowed outside, but there are only two small tables.
What I Like Best: The yummy salads and the snickerdoodle cookies and the soothing turquoise color of the walls.
Drawbacks: Least likely to encounter good people-watching. Most likely to encounter toddlers.
One Other Thing: While the coffee shop itself is usually a pleasant temperature, the bathroom is absolutely freezing. Walking in there is a good way to wake up when you’re slowing down in your productivity.
Opa makes me happy. Its huge, shaded front patio filled with picnic tables and plants kind of makes you feel like you’re on vacation somewhere just outside of the “real” world. And when it’s too hot to sit outside, there are plenty of tables inside too, where art books are scattered around for your reading pleasure. Opa is a great place to get work done, but it’s also a nice place to just sit and drink a glass of wine and let the day share with you what it has to offer.
Food Situation: Greek food– It’s good, but the selection is small and they need a few more reasonably priced snack-sized items.
Dog Friendly: Yes! Opa’s front patio is perfect for furry friends, and the staff loves dogs.
What I Like Best: The tall table in the corner in the back room. (I’m always productive there.) I also like the beer and wine selection. Although some of the other coffee shops in this list also serve alcohol, this is one of the few where I sometimes transition from work to happy hour. It is a smooth transition.
Drawbacks: Outdoor outlets often don’t work. Also, see food situation.
One Other Thing: Boundary lines are a little blurry at Opa. Here, more than at any other coffee shop in the list, strangers have a tendency to talk to one another. I’ve had several random and interesting conversations at Opa, and about a year ago, when I offered a woman a seat at my table, we discovered that we were from the same home town, went to the same elementary school, and had fathers in the same business. We’ve been friends ever since.
After a long hiatus from Bouldin Creek Cafe (I hadn’t been there since they were still at their previous location) I rediscovered this quirky coffee shop and immediately fell back in love. Their vegetarian menu sets them apart from most other places and they draw an eclectic crowd of Austinites.
Food Situation: Good menu– All food is vegetarian with a lot of gluten-free and vegan options.
Dog Friendly: Yes. Dogs are allowed on the outdoor patio, but that area is full service, so I don’t think you can linger all day over your coffee there.
What I Like Best: The garden breakfast with scrambled eggs, fresh tomatoes, and spinach. (Yum!) And the good people-watching.
Drawbacks: Limited parking.
One Other Thing: Make sure your laptop is charged. Outlets are somewhat limited.
Fair Bean, located just down the road from Bouldin Creek, is a recent addition to my coffee shop circuit, but it’s already become a frequent choice. Like Monkey Nest, they do a good job packing in the tables to offer ample seating, and it’s one of the few coffee shops where I’ve never (so far) had trouble parking.
Food Situation: Limited menu, but enough to make up a lunch. Good empanadas and various breads.
Dog Friendly: Yes, but there are only a few outdoor tables.
What I Like Best: This may sound weird, but the oatmeal. It’s a BIG bowl and I get it with dried cranberries, walnuts, and brown sugar. It’s good fuel for a long writing session.
Drawbacks: Gets very hot in the summer.
One Other Thing: The last time I was there, I was entertained by a guy wearing headphones who didn’t seem to realize that he was humming/singing out loud.
Strange Brew is a truly original Austin gem. Since its opening in 2010, I’ve watched this twenty-four hour cafe grow from a single strip mall coffee shop to a space six times its original size, complete with a music venue and a room that can be reserved for private functions. For a while there, every time I went to Strange Brew a new wall had come down and a new addition had been added. I’m not sure they’re finished yet. Much more than just a coffee shop, Strange Brew has nightly shows, a Gospel brunch on Sundays, and even hosted this year’s Austin International Poetry Festival. There’s really something for everyone there.
Food Situation: Small menu of breakfast tacos (until noon), sandwiches, and baked goods.
Dog Friendly: Yes. Dogs are allowed on the back patio.
What I Like Best: The practical compartmentalization of the space. This part is for music and this part is for ordering food and this part is for hanging out and this part is for being quiet and getting work done. It’s very organized. Also there are lots of bathrooms, which is nice.
Drawbacks: You have to purchase something every two hours to keep your wifi on. (I’m not opposed to having to purchase food/drinks, but sometimes I like to make all purchases at once rather than standing in line every two hours.)
One Other Thing: Because it’s a music venue, a lot of interesting musicians and artist types hang out there. I also met the grandson of some famous soap opera stars there once, which was random.
This is the only non-local coffee shop on my list, and I’d be sinning by omission if I didn’t include it. I like this particular location because it’s really close to home. In fact, it would be in walking distance if the street separating us wasn’t a sixty-five mph highway. I escape to The Coffee Bean when I need to get away from the distractions of home but don’t have time to journey far. They have spacious tables, ample outlets, and I almost always get a lot of work done when I’m there.
Food Situation: Not great. Just baked goods and sandwiches in the cold case. But they share their patio with a pizza place next door, so that’s an option.
Dog Friendly: Yes. Dogs are allowed on the front patio.
What I Like Best: Its proximity to my house and the 90s indie rock radio station they play.
Drawbacks: Not local. Sometimes cold inside.
One Other Thing: This coffee shop does not serve alcohol, but it is about a hundred yards from 400 Rabbits, which has an excellent assortment of tequila cocktails for when you finish your day’s work.
I seldom go to Spider House anymore, but I will always love it. I’ve been hanging out at this large, funky coffee shop since college. I’ve read there, written there, seen music there, played games there, and I love practically everything about it. I love the paintings on the walls and the crazy junk on the patio and the creepy narrow staircase leading down to a basement I’ve never seen. I love the fact that some people say the cafe is haunted. This place definitely has magic in it.
Food Situation: Good menu– sandwiches, salads, snacks. They also have a full bar.
Dog Friendly: I don’t think so, but was unable to confirm by the time of publication.
What I Like Best: The huge, funky patio and all the fun memories I have of this place.
Drawbacks: Parking can be tricky.
One Other Thing: Some of my bridal portraits (taken by my cousin Kelley) were done at Spider House, and my husband and I sat at one of the tables on the porch around midnight on a May night four years ago and wrote our wedding vows. 🙂
These coffee shops almost made the list and definitely deserve to be mentioned. For most of them, I simply haven’t been there enough to form a lasting opinion yet.