What makes a ‘great’ coffee shop?

Affordability, space and, of course, Wi-Fi

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Collegian File Photo

By Max Schwartz, Collegian Columnist

With work piling up and fall semester finally on a roll, students are searching for new places to hunker down and study.

What better place than a coffee shop?

On one hand, “good” coffee places typically have a cute – but basic – exterior, average-tasting food and drink and a seating area full of overpaying college students. On the other hand, “great” coffee places, although few and far between, spoil us and leave us asking for more. Amherst and its neighboring towns have several “good” coffee places that could be “great” with a few key adjustments. What defines these “good” and “great” coffee places is a mix of fine coffee and treats, affordability and an environment that offers a peaceful place to study and converse with friends.

One of the first coffee shops that comes to mind when strolling around is none other than Amherst Coffee. To say that Amherst Coffee needs adjustment would be an understatement. Upon entering, students are greeted with dim lighting, spacious seating arrangements and drinks that will make you say, “Did I really just pay seven dollars for that?” (You sure did.) In a college town, your job as a local business is to adjust the prices of your goods to cater to your audience – something that Amherst Coffee seemingly skipped over when drafting its business plan. Oh, and don’t plan on staying after 6:59 p.m. in the evening because the Wi-Fi shuts off at 7:00 p.m.

Beyond this, the drinks are alright, but the prices run high. It would be forgivable if Amherst Coffee could offer a student discount, because expensive coffee is the last place students want to rack up debt. If the objective was to provide an intimate space for study and chit-chat, Amherst Coffee just misses the mark. The lighting needs to be improved, the room is far too open to get comfortable and the environment is uptight. Just because a shop has a wine bar doesn’t make it any better than the rest.

Just down the road on North Pleasant Street is who Amherst Coffee sees as its competitor, Share Coffee. However, Share doesn’t see much competition with Amherst Coffee – and for good reason. Reasonably priced food and drink, an intimate workspace and hours that cater to students, how can this place get any better?

Well, the shop simply needs more seating. Share makes do with the space they have, including gated outdoor seating, but as temperatures begin to drop you won’t expect to see many students taking advantage of this. To break the threshold from good to great, Share could see the addition of heating lamps outside so when winter rolls around, latecomers will have a place to sit and study. This addition, on top of student discounts and shorter wait times for coffee could see Share rise as the preeminent coffee shop and study place in the surrounding area.

If you’re willing to take the bus or drive over to neighboring Northampton, there are a couple stops worth making. I found this place by accident right next to a visitors parking lot, far from the main avenue. Iconica Social Club, a Victorian/steampunk coffee shop redefines the ordinary “study sesh” for those willing to try something new. Iconica is more than just a quaint coffee shop, though; it’s an experience. Visitors will taste some of the best vegan foods western mass has to offer alongside slowly brewed coffee all inside a warm cabin-looking building with exposed beams and dark oak wood.

Although Iconica is pretty good, it has two major downsides that keep it from being “great” for University of Massachusetts students: the distance and the capacity. Iconica is at least a 15-minute drive from any part of campus which isn’t much but with alternatives only a five-minute walk away, the trek seems unnecessary. The club offers one of – if not the cutest – environments to get to work and to catch up with a friend. But where it’s cute and warm, the club heavily lacks in seating. There is minimal seating on the ground floor and even less upstairs, where it’s a quieter, optimal study space. The seating outside is only convenient during warmer months and looks onto a parking lot. The prices aren’t ridiculous, but you’re not in for a bargain either, which leaves Iconica as a solid choice if you’re willing to go the extra mile.

The area surrounding UMass certainly has ample to offer, especially in the field of coffee shops, from nooks in downtown Amherst to parking lots in Northampton. Beyond this, the options here are multipurpose, serving students, out-of-town visitors and regular customers to some of the best food and drink in western Mass. Ultimately though, none of the options are “great,” as this label is contingent on the improvement of certain customer privileges like Wi-Fi past 7:00 p.m. in the evening and more affordable drinks. Recognizing these weaknesses is one step closer to greatness for many of these shops. For others, it’s just the beginning.

Max Schwartz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]