The college student mythos associates scholars with steaming cups of coffee, an identity that has roots in the Oxford coffee houses of the mid-17th century.
Because the single cent admission fee guaranteed access to conversations by academics and virtuosi as well as hot coffee, these establishments were known as “penny universities.” They set themselves apart from the mainstream taverns and pubs by offering a new kind of drinking culture, one that was non-alcoholic, fostering intellectual discourse with caffeine, newspapers and each other as the stimulant.
Books & Brew is the closest UVa-Wise has to one of those English establishments. Serving Starbucks products to drink, light snacks and sandwiches, Books & Brew invites students to socialize and study in one of the various seating arrangements nearby. Yet, it exhibits merely the semblance of a coffee house, lacking the defining ability to maintain a vibrant community within.
One of its flaws lies in its prices; even the smallest sized drinks can cost up to four dollars. It is unfortunate that Books & Brew costs so much more than a “penny university;” the high prices necessarily create an exclusive product to be appreciated regularly by only those with the means, stratifying the community by class. In a world in which the McDonald’s ten minutes down the road sells drip coffee for a dollar no matter the size, this may be too much for most college students to swallow.
An additional drawback is Books & Brew’s hours, which seem to come up too short to host a late night college community. While accommodating from 7:30am to 11:30pm Monday through Thursday, it closes at 2pm on Fridays and fails to serve during the weekend. I realize the mainly commuter based college probably cannot generate enough business during these hours, which perhaps would change if the community supported the cafe. It may be described as a circular problem: Books & Brew won’t open if no one goes, and no one goes because Books & Brew isn’t open.
Another unusual obstacle in the way of community building is the awkward fusion of the silence of a library and the chatter of a hang out spot. When I walk in, I feel the need to be quieter than normal due to the visible expanse of the fourth floor main library in the middle of the room. The effect is enhanced by the absence of music playing or established precedent to provide an alternative atmosphere other than the preservation of sterile silence. Am I supposed to be quiet to respect the library beneath and the quiet students around me? Or is this particular area designated as a general meeting place, where conversations can stay at normal volume and those who wish for silence can go elsewhere? Mixed messages lead to unclear expectations for social behavior in the space.
Books & Brew could easily be transformed into a gathering place that cultivates a vital community. The convenient location on the fifth floor of the library, the center of campus, symbolizes the cafe’s potential as a hub of activity. The gorgeous views through the picture windows in the spacious 24 hour study area around it offer an appeal that fast food restaurants and other UVa-Wise buildings can’t match. I encourage students to take the initiative to call for and create a community space in Books & Brew through engaging the administration at UVa-Wise, Chartwells dining services and most importantly, each other. We can organize and establish a “penny university” that belongs to all of us.