Discover more from BOSS BARISTA
The Boss Barista Reading List
My recommended reads about coffee (with very few actual coffee books).
You may have noticed a change to your typical programming. Longtime Boss Barista subscribers know I release a podcast episode every other Tuesday, but following some technical issues and scheduling snafus, there’s no new audio for you today. Instead, I wanted to share something a little different with you.
Recently, I found myself talking on the phone with a friend about The Ideal Cafe. This friend is opening a coffee shop, and what was supposed to be a quick catch-up conversation turned into an hour-and-a-half-long philosophical rabbit hole about the ideas and concepts in coffee that actually excite us. Towards the end, I recommended two books I thought encapsulated a lot of the topics we discussed, neither of which was explicitly about coffee.
Please consider supporting the newsletter financially—your contributions keep Boss Barista afloat:
I tend to refer a lot of books, articles, and other forms of media to my friends and colleagues. That’s partly because reading new pieces has become an essential engine of my own creativity, and a way that I try on new ideas. I’m the type of person who likes to explore every angle of a new concept—I read one awe-inspiring book, and it’s enough to spark a few dozen trails of thought that end up littered throughout my writing.
I’m also the type of person who won’t shut up about whatever great new book I’ve read. During that recent phone conversation with my friend, I found myself referring to books that captivated me when I first encountered them—and, now that they’re back at the forefront of my mind, I haven’t shut up about them since.
And so, I was inspired to make what I’m calling The Boss Barista Reading List. Here are a few reads that have had a big impact on me. I hope this encourages you to explore them (and to leave some new reading recommendations for me in the comments!).
📖 Books Not About Coffee That Inform How I Think About Coffee 📖
“How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell: When I first picked up a copy of “How to Do Nothing,” I thought I was about to read a self-help book that would help untether me from my phone. Instead what I got was a beautiful guide to engaging with the world more meaningfully by reconsidering how we measure value. In terms of coffee, Odell’s book made me think about how we define quality, and how quality is usually seen as just one thing, often something we can monetize—but sometimes, it’s OK to be useless.
I wrote about that topic here, and I thought about Odell’s book again recently when my friend Dave Infante, who writes an excellent newsletter called Fingers, wrote about dive bars and third spaces: “What if neighborhood joints didn’t have to make more money to cover rent or give up the lease to a Jamba Juice? What if their value to the community as third places was enough?”
“Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas: I was gifted this book early in the pandemic, and I had no idea why—until I read it cover to cover and, upon finishing, went back to the first page and started all over. Giridharadas (who also writes a newsletter called The.Ink) looks at charitable work done by billionaires and moneyed corporations and presents a powerful thesis: “The rich and powerful fight for equality and justice any way they can—except ways that threaten the social order and their position atop it.”
Giridharadas’ book gave me a framework for questioning power, and is a deft reminder of how hard many will work to maintain the status quo. I remember once someone asked me if bosses and owners opposed unions because of money, and I resolutely said no: It’s about power. “Winners Take All” has helped me identify just how corrupting maintaining power can be, and helped me question why so many private equity firms keep buying up coffee businesses left and right.
“Sphinx” by Anne Garréta: I had never heard the term “Oulipo” until I picked up “Sphinx” randomly in a bookstore during a visit to New York in 2017. Oulipo arose as a French school of literary thought in the 1960s, one that put rules and restraints in place in order to foster creative expression. I won’t spoil the rule Garréta adheres to in “Sphinx,” but many of the constraints set by authors are technical: using only a set number of words, or omitting one letter of the alphabet from a piece of writing, for example.
I need rules to be creative. I need constraints to feel like I can work. I thrive in defined spaces. That’s one of the reasons I try to keep such a strict podcasting and writing schedule—but I don’t think I could have articulated this fully until I read “Sphinx” and learned more about Oulipo ideas. It’s within the boundaries I set for myself that I find the ability to be creative. Without constraints, I’ll flounder in endlessness.
I don’t think Oulipo-inspired constraints end at creativity. Rules and definitions help us when talking about workplaces: So much of the ambiguity and misunderstandings that happen between bosses and workers happen because of undefined expectations and a lack of boundaries. In the context of job descriptions, phrases like “other tasks as needed” are pretty much the opposite of Oulipo.
“Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook” by Kevin Bludso (and many of the other cookbook authors whose books I’ve read for TASTE’s Monday Interview series): I’m highly suggestible. If I see someone making pasta on television, I will be driven to make pasta and won’t stop thinking about pasta until I have it.
I’ve interviewed so many excellent people for TASTE’s Monday Interview series, most of whom have written cookbooks. The process of reading a cookbook as a text, from front to back, gives you an entirely different way of understanding a person. Kevin Bludso’s cookbook in particular is so welcoming, yet so personal. I wrote for TASTE that reading his book “feels like he’s already decided you’re his friend: he talks often about his parents … and throughout the recipes, he reminds you not to “fuck it up” by making a silly mistake.”
Bludso’s book reminded me to consider my audience when I’m writing, but not to sacrifice my own identity in the process—and I think that’s a lesson that feels relevant to the coffee industry at large. Sometimes it feels like coffee businesses, especially small shops, are either chasing customers or trying to stay true to whatever rigid vision they’ve developed—but the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.
📊 OK, Fine—Here’s Some Great Coffee Stuff
“A Business Case to Increase Specialty Coffee Consumption in Producing Countries.” by Vera Espíndola Rafael: I’ve referenced this paper a zillion times, so just read it already, especially if you want to know more about how money works in coffee.
Ted Fischer’s talk on coffee and value at Re:co 2019: Ted has a new book out soon and I can’t wait to read it! In the meantime, watch this talk—it’ll make you question how value is assigned, and his book extrapolates on some of the findings he presents in this talk.
“Coffee Milk Blood” by Vava Angwenyi: Perhaps one of the best conversations I’ve ever had on the podcast was with Vava. During her first appearance on the podcast, she talked about decolonizing empowerment and how much of the global coffee trade is built upon a paternalistic relationship between coffee growers and coffee roasters. One of the ways this is often expressed is through photography, and sometimes roasters will use photos from their visits to coffee farms to promote their brand—but there’s a question of what these photos are actually trying to convey or capture. Vava’s book is about refocusing the lens on the people who actually grow and produce coffee.
“The Importance of Heads-Up Coffee Service” by Alex Bernson: I don’t think a single article has changed how I feel about customer service more than this piece. I often think that the most important skill I’ve developed as a barista isn’t anything to do with coffee, but rather the ability to take in my surroundings carefully. Bernson’s piece is reminder to keep your head up and take a look around.