Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Coffee Culture: Slow Down and Focus

by Joyce McGreevy on January 18, 2016

Cameras on display at the Camera Museum, part of London's coffee culture and a place to slow down and see things differently. (Image © Camera Museum)

Café, what café? Let’s see what develops.
© Camera Museum

To See the World, See Things Differently

There was only one logical conclusion: the café had been stolen by elves.

Sightseeing can mean seeing things differently–only now I couldn’t see the site at all. In search of a rumored gem of café culture, I paced the short stretch of London footpath.  On that bitter cold morning in Bloomsbury, outdoor tables and chairs were sensibly tucked away. So I checked the street address again and again. But where the café was supposed to be, I saw only a shop front, its window chockablock with camera gear.

Then again, the café’s name had a photography reference, so it had to be right there. Yet when I glanced inside, there was only a small, softly lit shop. It barely looked big enough to contain its glass counter, across which two elderly men affably debated the merits of tripods.

Obviously, there was no room for a café.


Customers checking out photography gear at the Camera Museum, part of London’s coffee culture and a place to slow down and see things differently. (Image © Camera Museum)

There’s more brewing here than first meets the eye.
© Camera Museum

The Case of the Vanishing Café

Perhaps the café was like Brigadoon, the fictional Scottish village fated to reappear only one day every 100 years. Perhaps it was cousin to the London pub that mysteriously disappears in the madcap detective novel The Victoria Vanishes: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery, by Christopher Fowler.

Or perhaps I just needed to slow down and focus.

Back I went to the camera shop. This time, instead of tentatively glancing through the door, I walked right in. There were new and vintage cameras, elephantine lenses, flashes, and battery grips arrayed in display cases everywhere. Stacked boxes filled the gaps between shelves and ceiling.

No coffee culture here.

From Scattered Photons to Single Focus

Just as I was about to leave, I looked up and saw a sign that said “Dessert.” (Some details naturally rivet my attention.) As a customer stepped away from the counter, another sign, “Coffee Shop,” was revealed.

Then I looked to the left, around a display case, and down a short hallway half in shadow. There it was, aptly underexposed—the Camera Café. To find it, you had to be fully inside the building. You had to observe your surroundings.

Oh, I see: As a photographer might say, I needed to adjust my focus. First, slow down that snap-happy shutter speed. Then, expand the depth of field and explore the entire scene.

A vintage camera, water glass, and coffee cup, illustrating how savoring the moment can help people see things differently. (Image © pia–ch/iStock)

Take time to focus, and savor a sense of place.
© pia–ch/iStock

That was years ago. Today the café, renamed the Camera Museum, is so heavily signposted that no passerby could miss it. But at the time, as befuddlement turned to “Eureka!” it held a mythic quality.

Call it a Narnia moment, because it felt like finding a world behind the wardrobe.

Ever since, I’ve reveled in witnessing the hidden, which, admittedly, often includes delayed discoveries of the obvious.

The street view of the Camera Museum, a place that invites passersby to slow down, see things differently, and enjoy London’s coffee culture. (Image © Camera Museum)

Once easily missed, this London café draws full focus today. 
© Camera Museum

To Look or to See?

Sometimes the most delightful details are hidden in plain sight.

Recently, while waiting my turn in a coffee house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I decided to take in the details of the setting rather than reflexively stare at my cell phone. That’s when I saw it—the fairy door in the baseboard. It stood just a few inches high, but it had a big place at Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea.

A miniature fairy door set into the baseboard of the Sweetwater Café in Ann Arbor, Michigan, illustrating a beloved element of the coffee culture that invites people to slow down and see things differently. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Who lives here? Someone tiny and shy!
© Joyce McGreevy

Children’s book author Jonathan B. Wright (who also happens to teach design) created the fairy door, now a beloved element of local coffee culture. The one I spied is just the second of several such doors that mysteriously appeared in Ann Arbor, beginning in 1993.

What about the first fairy door? As coincidence would have it, that one appeared in the Wrights’ own home.

Soon, fairy doors and windows turned up all around town. Locals and visitors began to see the world differently.

Inspired by this stumbled-upon whimsy, I decided to track down other fairy dwellings.  My favorite was the fairy house at the Ann Arbor public library.

Fairy houses hidden within books at the public library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, inviting people to see things differently in miniature. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

These books give new meaning to the phrase “multi-story housing.”
© Joyce McGreevy

When Details Become Doorways

So you might say it was the fairies who led me to yet another serendipity.

The library happened to be hosting a sale of vintage children’s books. There, for the grand sum of two dollars, I discovered a pristine copy of a book I had cherished as a child, The Grandma Moses Storybook for Boys and Girls, published in 1961.

1969 U.S. postage stamp (6 cents) honoring the art of Grandma Moses, illustrating how looking carefully into something as tiny as a stamp can help people see things differently. (Image by Bureau of Engraving and Printing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

You can even see the world in a postage stamp!

Like many another sentimental object, it had fallen down time’s rabbit hole.

Now here it was. With the slight vanilla scent of each familiar page, a world of memories opened up and invited me back in.

See what happens when you slow down and focus?

Savoring the local coffee culture or simply pausing to see things differently can give you a deeper sense of place. It might take you to a half-hidden café in London or a fairy house in the Midwest. It might even take you all the way back to your happy childhood.


To stay up on what’s new with the fairies of Ann Arbor, visit the Urban Fairies Operations (UFO), a site maintained by Jonathan B. Wright. Find his books and a tour map to the fairy doors here

Grandma Moses stamp credit: by Bureau of Engraving and Printing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.



24 thoughts on “Coffee Culture: Slow Down and Focus

  1. Thank you, Barbara! Be sure to check out this week’s post by Meredith Mullins. It’s right up our lit-lovin’ alley!

  2. This was my first look at OIC, on the recommendation of a friend and contributor. It certainly won’t be my last. Greatly enjoyed this post and look forward to more.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Ms. Ogden–and a thank you to your friend as well! We at OIC Moments are always delighted to welcome a new subscriber.

    • Thank you for the lovely comment, BJ. We hope you’ll also enjoy this week’s post from writer & photographer Meredith Mullins on the topic of American public libraries.

  3. Lovely! Thank you for your sharing your observations.
    Indeed, they are part of “what it is all about”. :)


    • Thank you, Jonathan. By the way, being the expert fairyologist that you are, you already know that public libraries are a favorite dwelling place of fairy folk & other book lovers. As it happens, this week’s OIC Moments post by Meredith Mullins explores some particularly appealing American public libraries. I’ll be studying her photos extra carefully!

    • Thank you, Chris. For another of life’s special surprises, check out Meredith Mullins’ post on American public libraries in this week’s edition.

  4. What a delightful and descriptive exploration of the tiniest jewels of detail around us that are so easily missed when we are caught up in our routines. Thank you for inspiring us to slow down and observe, to be present and to witness the magic!

    • Go raibh maith agat, Sinead. While I won’t give away any spoilers, it’s safe to say that some of my upcoming posts will feature topics set in Ireland!

  5. Dearest Joyce,
    I love your writing, your use of shutter speed and depth of field, and this timely topic. My 2016 promise to myself is to do exactly what you propose: slow down and focus on things instead of being so busy and rushed that I create a life that is nothing more than being busy and rushed. I will add a couple more of your words to my reminders this year: “Pause” and “Savor”. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Coming from a photographer as gifted as yourself, Melissa, those kind words mean a great deal! And thank you, too, for sharing the post!

      For this week’s viewing & reading pleasure, see writer & photographer Meredith Mullins’ feature on American public libraries.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this, we pass through life very quickly without really seeing all the little details. This very interesting read is the sign to stop, look around and take it all in. Thanks Joyce for the very important reminder :-)

    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Lorraine. Speaking of taking it all in, now that you’ve visited the better part of 50 U.S. states, I’ll be looking to you for cultural travel ideas!

  7. How delightful! I love discovering what lives behind the “first look” through your keen perspective, Joyce. I’d follow you down any rabbit hole. Can’t wait to read more.

    • What kind words from a respected mentor and gifted writer. Thank you, Honor. I’m enjoying the headlong tumble of “rabbit-hole” travel–updates to follow! In the meantime, be sure to see this week’s post, a wonderful piece by Meredith Mullins on American public libraries. Definitely one to share with all who love books as much as we do.

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