Old is the New New

Why young folk love the aesthetics of age.

Above the counter where I sit, across from the espresso machine, is a shelf overflowing with growing vines – or at least, I think they are growing, until I look closer and realize they are plastic. Behind me are some burlap sacks apparently used to store coffee beans, but upon further inspection, I see they are actually filled with plastic bags. The head of what I believe used to be a wild boar hangs on the wall next to me. The tables are wooden-hewn with tarnished metal legs, the still not-removed price tags only noticeable if you glance underneath the tabletops. And at the back of the coffee shop is a display case filled with a dusty typewriter, a weathered globe, and some movable type from a printing press.

Every piece of decor in this hipster coffee shop has been selected to fit a specific aesthetic: one that creates the impression of age. Everything accessorizing this shop’s interior looks old and feels old, even though it’s been open for less than six months. As I sit perched on my vintage stool, I start to get the feeling that I’ve been here before, even though this is my first time visiting the place. That’s because, I realize, this shop looks virtually like every other hipster coffee shop. Perhaps the details change (maybe there’s a deer’s head instead of a boar’s head, or a rusted bicycle wheel adorning the wall instead of the worn canoe paddles), but the general aesthetic of minimalism accented with antiques remains the same. Old is the new… new.

Why is an environment that feels aged so appealing? Why do a growing number of coffee shops feature aged prints framed on their walls and old-fashioned lightbulbs hanging from their ceilings? I might sound as if I’m critiquing this place, but after all, I’m still here. It’s not just because they make an excellent flat white, either; I like being here. It makes me feel grounded. If I can step into an environment with ready-made roots, then I can feel for a time that I have roots of my own.

This desire to be rooted and grounded in something is, I believe, a good one. It’s a desire that makes a lot of sense for the Millennial, hipster-coffee-drinking generation I am a part of. The world is a turbulent place, and while we might disguise it by scoffing at the notion of “settling down,” the longing for stability and community permeates the stories my generation tells, in both what is said and what is left unsaid. I certainly want to put down roots of my own. Whether it’s being a part of a certain community, committing to a job, or just having the barista at the coffee shop know my name and drink order whenever I come in, I want to feel as if I am a part of something more permanent and solid than myself.

But an aesthetic is a shortcut.

An environment cannot take the place of an experience; an aesthetic is not a substitute for real age and history. Being in a place that looks grounded does not actually mean we have put down roots – it just means a designer has done an excellent job creating an atmosphere. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the atmosphere, and it may be a reflection of a very true, very human desire, but the aesthetic remains only an imitation.

This shortcut is tempting. It’s easy to drive to a coffee shop and exist there for a while. Actually putting down real, personal roots in a place requires choice and commitment, which always come with the risk of pain. When we build new relationships, when we join a church, or when we hang art on the walls of the apartment, we’re making a conscious choice to stay somewhere without knowing what that place will give back to us. Investing in a space requires time, effort, and sacrifice, with only the hope and not the guarantee of roots to reward us.

In the meantime, I’m still sitting in the coffee shop, sipping my espresso from its vintage mug. It’s a comfortable place to be for now. But I want more than an aesthetic, more than a shortcut. I want to grow my own roots.

What are some practical ways to start developing roots in the places where we live? Let me know in the comments here or on the Humane Pursuits Facebook page.


Elena Trueba is a curriculum developer and teacher, who focuses on helping high school students read, write, and engage with the stories that shape their lives. She is a graduate of Excelsior College, a former visiting student in Theology at Oxford University, and a great lover of strong coffee. 

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