Yesterday I noticed that yet another bookshop along Charing Cross Road has been transformed into a café. So what? Cityscapes change. Cafés in London are often too crowded, so we could do with more. And we can find books, new and secondhand, on the Internet. It would not even be difficult to reproduce the pleasure of browsing by integrating shops' catalogues and the sample pages that are visible on Google Books. Only the musty smell, and the exchanged smiles with fellow hunters of obscure volumes of desire, would be lost.
Those losses would be real, but not great, and there are gains too, in this case café space. But cafés are for those with the money to buy their wares. London has never encouraged the hire of a table for the whole morning by the purchase of a single round of espressi. Even decent restaurants tell you that you have only 90 minutes for lunch. So we cannot see the proliferation of cafés as providing the public space for all that is so valuable. In fine weather, there is no lack. There are squares and parks. But when it is cold or wet, we need something else. We have it in London, up to 6 pm or thereabouts, in our splendid, and free, museums. But they are not places to chatter too loudly, or to sit down in large groups and gossip.
I offer no particular remedy, not even agorai in giant plastic bubbles. But it strikes me that public spaces, open to all, without payment or any other qualification such as residence or respectability, are vital. It therefore pains me to see large chunks taken out of Hyde Park and walled in for commercial events, as often happens on the eastern side of the park. More generally, those thinkers (often right-libertarians) who are opposed to all public property, who would put all land into private ownership on the basis that it will be in the interests of the landowners to sell admission to others, suffer from far too narrow a vision of human life.