Ghosts of coffees past: Holborn Grind

I used to feel threatened by hipster culture. In an earlier, less secure time of my life I briefly lived with some people who represented a certain side of hipsterism, not too far from Charlie Brooker’s parodical Nathan Barley. They were obsessed with looking good – i.e. boldly, sometimes eccentrically stylish – and having in-jokes. They would flip between being ironic and earnest, but would never own up to not knowing something about something. This is all to do with being cool, right back to the origins of that word – unflustered, calm; unsurprised by events in your life and the world because you can cope, you are knowledgeable, you are capable.

At the time, I found them aloof, unpleasant and exclusive, and I did not last long in that environment. In retrospect, it seems like the sort of problem I’d have had in the simpler times of the 2000s – clashing with people quite like me, with similar opinions and upbringings – in contrast to the 2010s where society seems genuinely riven and the opposition entirely deplorable.

Now I find hipsters harmless. The stylistic tendencies associated with that trend are now a common language and familiar to many as a signal of a certain sort of establishment. This is not an ostentatious, elitist form, but something more accessible.

Maybe you’d call it post-modern, if (as I understand it), postmodernism and modernism are something to do with self-awareness. It isn’t possible for a modern person to adopt previous ways of doing things without self-awareness, or self-consciousness of how it looks to others, what it means in the context of today, and possibly even defining themselves as not other, more modern styles. Take classic signifiers like the wood panelling, those felt boards with white lettering on or those dungar-aprons at Timberyard. (Or even the name Timberyard,for heaven’s sakes.) These sorts of things were more common in the past at a point when they were the best choice in terms of functionality or cost; but now they are adopted for how they look, while wanting to convey the sense that it still is about the functionality and cost-effectiveness. How else could I put this? Look how down-to-earth I am. You definitely don’t need to look at this because I’ve only made it to serve a purpose.

But these days, it is accessible. An elitist sting has been taken out. People can buy into it and feel accepted by it. They might just like the style. They might actually feel– if not know– that there is some sort of elitism or exclusivity implicit, and they might like being part of that. Perhaps other people might even think that the hipster style is about taking pride in appearances, and that that’s no bad thing. Still others may well be switched off by it and what it represents, feeling it’s not for them (not least that it might mean an expensive cup of coffee).

I sit somewhere in the middle. I don’t applaud the elitism – for example the tendency of trendy coffee shops to give prices as simple decimals (Flat White: 2.5) or, even worse, an absence of any drinks menu at all because they expect everyone to know what is possible and what they want. But to me, hipster style is usually a sign of somewhere I will get a decent coffee. I can rely on it.

Which brings me to Holborn Grind. The Grind chain, started with Shoreditch Grind at Old Street, is hipsterism monetised. It is a sign that the style is mainstream enough to sit on major thoroughfares and attract a big following.

All the Grind shops have, to me, something of a 50s American diner feel mixed in with the hipster chic. Holborn Grind was part of a larger hipstery complex within Hoxton Hotel (at Holborn, confusingly), with a bar/restaurant and a trendified, unspokenly lol-ironic chicken shop. The coffee shop was narrow with floor to ceiling glass windows, and doors at each end (again, here’s a longer description from the designers themselves, if you care). On colder days the glass windows would get opaque with condensation, almost sordidly, like you might expect Kate Winslet’s sweaty hand to smear down the inside. Its choice of music was going for pumping more than cool or relaxing, so it was not always the best for sitting in.

But the coffee was perfectly good. Why wouldn’t it be? There was a time when I was put off by Grind, and a time after that when I didn’t mind it. I think this is the precise point when I stopped feeling threatened or excluded by hipsterism. Hipsters are harmless. Perhaps they just want to be loved, just like everybody else does.

And then one day, I got there and it was empty, the windows clean of steam and ready to be swallowed up by the rest of the hotel. Have no fear – hipsterism will rise again. Whether you like it or not…