Forget the cafés — our best books will be written in donut shops

Pick a night in the mid-’90s and there’s a good chance I’m sitting in the Country Style Donuts at Markham Road and Painted Post in Scarborough, nursing a regular coffee and scribbling into a notebook. On the wood-veneer table in front me there’s an overflowing ashtray, a half-empty ceramic mug of coffee and a used paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises or The Age of Reason. I light another cigarette and try to piece together a sentence that might lead to another sentence that might lead to literature, I stare out the window over the strip-mall horizon and try to imagine that my donut shop in Scarborough is analogous to the cafés of Hemingway or Sartre.

An entry in The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French explains how the now-
legendary and sometimes theme-parked cafés of Paris were, during the Enlightenment, “places where new or subversive ideas could be fairly openly discussed (though police spies haunted them).” Later, they became home to the bohemians, some of whom called themselves “the water drinkers” because that was all they could afford. Later still, the Café de Flore in St.-Germain-des-Près became the hangout for Sartre and Beauvoir and the world headquarters for existentialist thought chiefly because, according to a history of café life in the November, 2002 issue of the English-language online magazine, “The owner was kind to his ‘clients’ though they often bought only one small café each day.” The magazine piece sums it up: “[cafés] are the soul of Paris, reflecting the vagaries of neighborhood life in all its sordid splendor … they have always been a place to read, to write, to plot, to dream, even to fall in love.”

Subversive, cheap, unhurried, varied and haunted by police: sounds a bit like Coffee Time, doesn’t it? Canada, an evolving culture, has never been as precious as France. They have a beret stylishly cocked atop their head, we have a toque pulled down over our eyes, they have red wine and unpasteurized cheese, we have Molson Canadian and Kraft Dinner. They have cafés, we have donut shops.

Read, write, plot, dream, fall in love. I have done all of these things in donut shops, and encountered many people I never otherwise would have. Among the regulars at that Country Style in Scarborough was a man who called himself Mr. Smith. He wore a fur hat and a three-piece suit, steered a shopping cart full of blankets and plastic bags through the parking lot every night, and told anyone who’d listen about his days as a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada and the time he went to Ottawa to take care of a problem with Prime Minister Diefenbaker. There was a heavy, bald man with a thick accent who’d fought with the German army in WWII, who said he’d been young and stupid and didn’t completely understand at the time what the Nazis were about. He kept a counter full of people hanging on every word of his escape from a French prisoner-of-war camp. There was a former drug dealer, by then doing shift work in a factory, who was fascinated by how focused I was on reading and writing, and showed me a notebook he carried with him filled with barely-legible quotations he’d picked up here and there.

In that donut shop and others through the years I have seen first dates and breakups, witnessed the conclusions to many drunken pub crawls, overheard conversations about politics and religion and philosophy.

French cafés were a variation of the 17th-
century English coffee houses (themselves a refinement of the Turkish coffee houses of Istanbul), which gave rise to Addison and Steele’s The Tattler and The Spectator, England’s influential first magazines. Since widespread romanticization of the Parisian café in the early 20th century, the model seems to have for a while been frozen. Celebrated coffee house societies in Greenwhich Village and San Francisco, for example, closely followed the Parisian model. The donut shop, with its chain-store reliability and disposable decor, is a distincly late-20th century innovation in this centuries-old tradition.

The Canadian donut shop is undeniably down-market — the fluorescent lighting, the veneer and primary colours, the (recently-installed) one-touch cappuccino machines, the polyester-uniformed staff — but unlike the artier independent coffee houses and frappa-mocha-venti-expenseaccino corporate chains that supposedly made coffee cool again, donut shops possess next to no self-conscious hipness or pretentious exclusivity. No one I know would ever wonder if they needed to stop home and change into a more attractive outfit lest they seem underdressed at the Baker’s Dozen. They are also universally affordable — a half-hour of pan-handling can net enough for a cup of hot coffee and a few hours out of the cold.

More than any place in the world, Canada has embraced the donut shop. Consider, for example, that Tim Hortons, with over 2,100 locations, has four times as many donut shops per capita in Canada than the most popular American chain, Dunkin’ Donuts, has in the U.S. Canadians consume more donuts per capita than any other country in the world. All of this leaving aside for a moment that donut shops really aren’t about donuts. Popular recurring sketches on both This Hour has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce featuring regular folks talking politics in donut shops show more accurately the role of the donut shop in Canada: they’re cultural hubs.

In “The Canadian donut shop — a family thing,” an essay published online, a (strangely anonymous) author explains why he likes writing in a local donut shop: “I’ve noticed that we’ve all become a family. There’s Adam, the other writer; Dalton, the stoner; Kyle, the artist; Jason, the brawler; and a whole gallery of others.” He describes heated conversations about God and group trips to the bowling alley. “Our family,” he says, “accepts everyone.”

Mita Sen-Roy at Rain Barrel (hosted by geocities) says donut shops are “one of the few places where all of humanity can meet. Where else can you find Sunday post-church folk sipping coffee beside the post-party hangover folk? … both delinquent and cop, grannie and teen gangs, grunt manual workers and high-tech new media wage slaves, immigrants and blue bloods….”

Not everyone shares this view of donut shops as Canadian institutions. Responding in a speech to a Saturday Night corporate back rub of Tim Hortons in September, 1999 that asked in its headline (but did not address in the text) “What does it say about us that our only truly national institution is a donut shop?” left-wing polemicist Linda McQuaig said: “It’s sort of funny but at the same time its just absolutely ludicrous. I confess I like donuts and coffee as much as the next person. But, to call Tim Hortons a national institution is ludicrous…. I’ve been into dozens of Tim Hortons shops and nobody ever talks to others. All you do is you line up and pull out your wallet and you pay.”

Which may be all McQuaig does when she goes to donut shops, but her dismissal seems broad. McQuaig’s larger point was that donut shops don’t offer the type of shared vision and collective project that Tommy Douglas would have hoped for in a Canadian institution, but for her to dismiss the millions of Canadians for whom donut shops serve as a sort of town hall smacks of elitism of a most un-Sartrean kind.

The idea of the donut shop as gathering place has been the subject of more serious, if ridiculed, academic study. York University sociologist Steve Penfold was awarded the 1999 Ig Nobel prize (awarded by the American humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research for research that “cannot or should not be reproduced”) for his Ph.D. thesis on the sociology of the Canadian donut shop. Penfold examined Canadian donut shop culture as a complex phenomenon where many aspects of society intersect.

But for all that donut shops may have in common with Parisian cafés as cultural gathering places, there remains one large point of contrast. I have yet to encounter an intellectual movement, or a widespread school of art or of literature, that calls the donut shop home. Calls to publishers and agents requesting interviews with writers who work or hang out in donut shops drew perplexed silences. Internet searches for fiction portraying donut-shop society yielded nothing. It seems the mythologizing of this national cultural institution has not yet begun.

So may I humbly submit that it begin here: it was in donut shops that I conceived and wrote a good deal of my first (as yet unpublished) novel. Future biographers take note: I was broke then and the lighting was bad, but I was happy, for I was young and in love and had a place to sit and drink coffee.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on December 5, 2002.