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Carol Hunt: Now we're no longer able to wake up and smell the coffee

Coffee shops are not just places where you can get a decent espresso or cappuccino. Although if their societal contribution stopped at just that, they would more than have justified their existence.

But no, historically, coffee shops have contributed to the spread of the Enlightenment, to political intrigue, even to revolution. The coffee 'houses' that sprang up in Europe from 1650 onwards were the internet of their day -- the place you went to get and exchange information; to learn what was going on, not just with your neighbours, but in the wider world. Depending on the interests of customers, coffee houses would display commodity and share prices, shipping lists (Lloyds of London started as a coffee house), local and foreign news, and of course the latest in gossip and tittle-tattle.

Today many of us log on to Facebook or Twitter for the same sharing of information, but the coffee shop is still of great importance to a neighbourhood. It is what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls that vital "third place"; beyond work and home, a neutral space which is crucial to the development of a community -- giving it a sense of place, of civic engagement and democracy -- a meeting spot where people get one of those ever-dwindling opportunities to bump into their neighbours, particularly important in busy city communities.

Recently the coffee shop has also come to embody the aspirations of an upwardly mobile neighbourhood, its gentrification now threatened by recession. Many locals see the coffee shop as the lynchpin in what have become fragile communities.

Last week my husband and young son left home early on a school day to pop into our local coffee shop for a quick chat with whomever would be there, a glance at the papers and of course a cup of coffee with a Danish (on offer since the downturn). Though the current tight times have meant that any breakfast and lunch visits have been curtailed, we try our best to call in and buy something, no matter how small, as often as possible, to encourage business and keep the place alive.

Myself and the daughter set off that morning to follow them, but were surprised to meet the two boys coming back. "It's closed," said my young fella mournfully. That meant he got no pastry and no morning chat with Maria, the Romanian manager, who doted on him.

"Oh, that's odd. Perhaps they just decided to extend the bank holiday?" I said.

I know I am clutching at straws. Business has suffered very badly during the past few years. When locals (lucky enough to have some form of employment) have only enough disposable income left after paying the mortgage to go to Aldi, visits to the coffee shop are among the first "luxuries" to be ditched.

Our worst fears are confirmed a few days later when we hear that a last-minute decision had to be made to close the place down. The staff, whom we had known for years, had held keys for us, kept an eye on our kids during childcare crises, and generally put a smile into our days, were now suddenly unemployed, with few prospects and no income.

The lease is for sale, but it's doubtful we'll see a new buyer -- not in this area, not in these times, not with households and the State alike crushed under a mountain of totally unfair, unsustainable and rapidly rising debt. It will become yet another boarded up and then derelict eyesore on the inner city landscape.

Meanwhile, not a million miles away, that other lynchpin of the Irish community; the public house, was also in trouble. Again, unable to survive due to the huge reduction in its business, the owner has leased out the business and most of the staff have been let go.

The neighbourhood went into mourning. The pub remains open, just, like a body on life-support holding out a vague and overly optimistic hope that the doctors are right, the medicine will work and full consciousness will some day return.

Meanwhile, those ever popular 'dogs on the street' know you'd have more reason to believe in the tooth fairy. They don't need the latest week's CSO figures to tell them that the unemployment rate in this country has reached crisis point, and is now at its highest level (14.8 per cent) since this economic crisis began.

And none of us needs a crystal ball to know that austerity is not working anywhere in Europe. But we need to be 'Good Housekeepers', parrots the Government in line with EU policy.

Well, what the dogs could tell anyone who has ears to listen is that a nation's economy -- particularly one as open as ours -- cannot be run like a household. There is a crucial difference: one which we saw a stark, depressing example of in the closing of our local coffee shop last week.

In an economy, my spending (on coffee) was my coffee shop's income. When my disposable income dropped hugely (taxation, wage reduction, reduced working hours etc), my ability to buy coffee dropped. Multiply that with all others in my neighbourhood facing the same economic constraints, and the coffee shop can't make enough money to survive. It closes; its staff now require unemployment benefit -- they can't spend in their local areas, and on and on it goes until half the country ends up on the dole borrowing money from the Troika loan sharks whom we'll never be able to pay back. (Is that the plan?)

I'm not pushing any particular ideology here. These are the facts, backed up by years of empirical evidence, for those who want to acknowledge them.

Employment, not great wealth, is the cornerstone not just of a healthy economy -- which it most definitely is -- but also of a healthy society.

Recent "happiness research" tells us that money is far less important to most people than many materialists would like to believe. Economically, socially and psychologically, what is most important is a job.

Without work, an individual's self-worth is corroded; couples under financial stress are unable to cope; homes are foreclosed on; families split up; mental and physical illnesses rise; businesses fail; public services are decimated; neighbourhoods deteriorate; and countries are destroyed.

And all for enough spare change to buy a cup of coffee.

Sunday Independent