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Novel Advice: The Best Cafés for Writing

In a 2005 Slate essay about his failed coffee shop, New York contributing editor Michael Idov wrote: “The average coffee-to-stay customer nursed his mocha (i.e., his $5 ticket) for upward of 30 minutes. Don’t get me started on people with laptops.” His novel based on this experience, Ground Up, is out today. As an expert on both sides of the counter, we asked Idov to I.D. the city’s best cafés for writing a novel. Leave your picks in the comments, and then get back to work.

A writer, especially one with a laptop, is the plague of every New York café — yet every good café needs a few. They are the equivalent of the “stool pigeons” at a dive bar: reliable gargoyles, background extras, seat warmers for the customers actually interested in purchasing something more than three hours of cushioned ass space near an outlet.

Having been on both sides of the equation — the owner watching an order’s value tick down as hours go by, and the laptopper wishing that weirdo behind the counter would stop giving me baleful stares — I treasure cafés that allow for guiltless writing. Five of them are below. All are rated 1 to 10 on coffee quality, seat comfort, the clean-conscience factor (how long you can sit without feeling compelled to buy more), and access to outlets. Free Wi-Fi is not a factor, since it’s actually a bit detrimental to work. It’s hard to focus on your characters’ inner turmoil when you’ve got Arianna Huffington and Nick Denton whispering in your ears. Unless, of course, you’re writing a Huffington-Denton fanfic. But then you’d need something stronger than coffee, anyway.

Housing Works Bookstore and Café
A no-brainer — who doesn’t like writing in a two-tiered, book-lined room that looks like the Hollywood set of a wealthy eccentric’s private library? With a few flaws …
Coffee: 2. Here’s the place’s Achilles heel: The café itself is a bit of an afterthought.
Comfort: 8. If you sit too close to the shelves, be prepared for browsers wedging themselves between you and the books. The best nooks are on the balcony.
Outlet access: 2. Most tables are nowhere near one, so laptoppers have been known to stretch their cords taut across the room like finish-line ribbons.
Clean conscience: 4. The money goes to homeless people with AIDS, for chrissakes. Buy a freaking cookie.
Total: 16

The Archive
Yes, it’s in Bushwick. Where do you think writers — at least those without quiet private studies — live these days?
Coffee: 4 (by Gimme Coffee).
Comfort: 9. The furniture, like the rest of the place, is scuffed but comfortable.
Outlet access: 6.
Clean conscience: 10. The Archive explicitly welcomes keyboard-pecking loafers. And for inspiration or procrastination purposes, there’s a nicely if curtly curated DVD rental (a cri de coeur from a web commenter: “How can a video store not have Platoon?!”) on the premises.
Total: 29

Bouley Bakery
The intricate castling maneuvers within David Bouley’s Tribeca empire now have the bakery occupying the former space of the flagship restaurant — a much larger room than it seems to need. Score!
Coffee: 7.
Comfort: 10. All those steadily deteriorating Regency armchairs and banquettes from the room’s two-Michelin-star days are yours. Enjoy them while they last — they sure as hell won’t be replaced with faithful replicas when their time comes.
Outlet access: 3.
Clean conscience: 10. There’s no one to glare at you: Cooks, cashiers, et al. are in a separate room.
Total: 30

Tea Lounge
The Park Slope mainstay is on the list conditionally — for its afternoon ambiance. Morning belongs to mewling infants and infant-adjacent horrors such as nursery sing-alongs. At night, there’s a half-assed bar scene. The days, however, are all for laptoppers.
Coffee: 5. The quality of espresso drinks varies with the baristas, who range from pros to milk-burning klutzes. The teas are predictably good.
Comfort: 8. Just make sure to check that inviting sofa for baby spit up.
Outlet access: 8. Best at the communal table in the back. Maybe even too good — sitting there feels a little like school.
Clean conscience: 10. The room would look much sadder empty.
Total: 31

Think Coffee
So unapologetically literary it hosts readings and Scrabble tournaments.
Coffee: 8. Fair-trade, organic, shade-grown, with a slight tang of smug (the café’s website hosts an essay taking Starbucks to task for their drink-proportion math).
Comfort: 9. A pleasant mix of chairs and sofas in a loftlike room.
Outlet access: 6.
Clean conscience: 9. “No one ever bothered you about sitting there for hours on end,” reports a hard-writing friend. And if you don’t mind sharing your creative solitude with a few NYU kids banging out term papers on, let’s say, “Power, Environment, and the Body,” then all the better.
Total: 32

Novel Advice: The Best Cafés for Writing