Coffee shops: the second homes of all writers, from dreamy poets to obsessive bloggers or aspiring novelists alike. Buy a few caffeinated drinks and their tables can be rented out as the creative alternative to an office desk.
Although the constant source of caffeine has to be a factor, there must be another reason behind this phenomenon too. What better place to investigate than at Edinburgh’s The Elephant House, the much mythicised coffee shop where J.K. Rowling first penned Harry Potter…
From the outside, the large yellow writing heralds The Elephant House as ‘the birthplace of Harry Potter’ suggesting that, in recent years, this has become more of a tourist hangout than a home to young authors. However, once inside, despite the postcards and fan memorabilia on sale, the place is pleasingly low key.
The ambiance is very much of the 90s era coffee house: comfy sofas, coloured walls, dark wood paneling, big plants, lazy jazz music and large milky coffees over which you can linger for hours. Think the F.r.i.e.n.d.s staple Central Perk… a far cry from trendy London coffee ‘bars’ with their stripped walls, concrete floors, loud rock music and hard wooden stools, serving up strong, short macchiatos then pushing you out the door.
I order a latte and seat myself at one of the large round wooden tables with a view from the window towards Edinburgh castle. Whilst browsing the selection of newspaper clippings pinned to the wall, I read that Rowling used to gaze out at the castle when still a regular here (it was even thought to have been the inspiration for Hogwarts castle). I look around me at a man reading the paper whilst slurping on his soup, another guy tapping on his mac book, penning a masterpiece perhaps… There is predictably too a girl on a kindle (what the 21st century has done for us) and two girls chatting animatedly over their sandwiches. A Japanese tourist snaps a shot out of the window then sits down, satisfied, to his pot of tea, perhaps the only sign that anything has really changed in the twenty years since Rowling used to come here. You can also find references to the Elephant House in crime novels by Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, both regulars from times past.
Assistant manager Evie chats to me about the place: ‘it has a unique atmosphere… I don’t think that any other café in Edinburgh has this feel: upbeat but quite cosy at the same time.’ Manager David still remembers Rowling as a regular here, about 15 years ago. He started the place after returning from his travels in Indonesia, hence the Elephant theme. ‘People are always donating elephants, we have over 700.’ The walls are indeed filled with paintings, shelves packed with plastic, ceramic, glass and wooden elephant models and a pinboard is layered with drawings by children and adults alike. It adds a nice homely aspect to the place, something like the living room of an eccentric aunt with a collection of hundreds of antiques.
Evie pauses to chat briefly with another staff member and I think about how staff really can really make or break the atmosphere of coffee shops. I remember going into a place in Brighton, which I won’t name, in which two girls were bickering over how to make an iced latte; tension and unhappiness reigned and I literally ran out the door. ‘The people who work here are always so great,’ Evie says happily. ‘That’s why I’ve stayed so long. I started working part-time here when I was still at uni and just became full-time afterwards.’ After studying Fine Art at university, Evie is now planning to open her own gluten- free cake company. She generously offers me a piece of her Earl grey cake, on sale here. It is light and delicately flavoured, served with a generous dollop of cream.
Before heading off I pop to the bathroom and discover the real Harry Potter memorial: the walls are covered in scrawls from signed messages to Rowling herself to quotes. These range from the emotional ‘Thanks J.K. Rowling for making my childhood magical!’ to the witty ‘mirror of erased’ across the mirror or the arrow indicating the toilet as ‘the way to the ministry of magic’ (hopefully no deluded fans take this literally!). There are, as predictably found in toilets, the crude comments too: ‘if you would bang Hermione put a check mark here.’
‘Elephant House’ has managed to keep its integrity, despite the tourists. Famous writers would be unlikely to visit but unknowns such as myself can happily type undisturbed in a corner. Perhaps steer clear over the summer to avoid the crowds, but in the quieter months, there may now be places serving better coffee, but you would be hard pushed to find better atmosphere.
More info on The Elephant House at www.elephanthouse.biz
words Helena Goodrich