A common complaint of 21st century Britain is the overabundance of coffeehouses, with a Starbucks or a Costa seemingly on every corner. It is not, however, a complaint unique to our era. In fact, coffeehouses began their lives in Britain as far back as 1652, initially prevalent in Oxford and then London. By the turn of the century, London had gained over 500 new coffeehouses. Business was very much booming.
They were not, however, coffeehouses as we know them now, aside from the obvious source of comparison. They sold coffee, of course, and one would imagine the odd sneaky customer would enter simply to use their bathroom. Rather, coffeehouses held much greater social and political importance. It was in this environment that the great men of the time would gather, having paid a penny for their cup of coffee, to sit and debate. Instead of loading the Sky News app and perusing the latest headlines, gentlemen would wile away their days in the coffeehouse, reading and discussing the latest political publications and news. The coffeehouse became increasingly associated with news culture, not just because of the debates it housed, but due to the pamphlets and newspapers they would both print and provide. They were, in effect, booksellers, publishers, news outlets and coffeehouses rolled into one.
Interesting, maybe, but what relevance does this have? Well, it is to these ‘literary coffeehouses’ that Hatchards can trace its origin. The young John Hatchard, prior to opening his own shop, plyed his trade first as a printer’s apprentice before becoming a bookseller at the coffeehouse of a Mr Thomas Payne. Meaningless information aside, it was with this idea in mind that Hatchards was formed and, over the next century or so, continued to operate. It became a social hub, where men would escape to lounge in front of the fire, reading the popular pamphlets of the day (one, notably, produced by Hatchard himself, warned of Napoleon’s threat) and debating current affairs. At the root of all of this, not just for Hatchards but for many other aged English companies, lies the coffee bean. With our new store in St Pancras station serving coffee, it seems as if Hatchards has come full circle. Perhaps the old ways are indeed the best.