Over the Top

You might think I'm crazy, but a topless coffee shop is NOT a good idea.

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Call it a perk of the recession. Or maybe just another example of how our quality of life is diminishing in these troubled times. A topless cafe has opened in the town of Vassalboro, Maine. It’s called, appropriately enough, the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop. Customers can purchase $3 cups of java and $2 donuts from servers of either gender, hold the shirt.

The idea of sexing up utilitarian businesses is not without precedent, of course. Coffee shops employing lingerie-clad waitresses in Seattle and Las Vegas have been operating since 2007. Sexy maid services are as common as foreclosures these days. But the topless coffee shop is a new phenomenon, and a timely one: Apparently the economy has gotten so bad that simply selling boiling caffeine in one of the country’s coldest, sleepiest states is no longer a solid business proposition. Gimmicks are required, and even then, the sales don’t come easy. On the Grand View’s first day, only 60 customers showed up. In contrast, over 150 job-seekers willing to trade the shirts off their backs for a steady paycheck applied for a chance to schlep coffee to their horny neighbors.

The good news: Despite Vassalboro’s presumably high unemployment rate, self-esteem remains strong there. Serving coffee half-nude, in the light of day, to customers who grow more and more sober instead of more and more drunk, with only some overpriced donuts competing with your nipples for attention, must take a fair amount of confidence, no matter how bad you need to make rent.

The bad news: Topless coffee shops are a bad and potentially dangerous idea. In theory, of course, they sound wonderful. An early-morning mug of steaming Sumatra is one of life’s most reliable and necessary pleasures. And so is ogling semi-nude strangers in public venues of commerce. So why not put them together? Two plus two equals four, right?

In this instance, no. A topless post office might be a useful innovation. A topless dry cleaner, too. Those are boring, utilitarian places where delightfully unfamiliar torsos would be a welcome distraction. But coffee shops, in their standard incarnations, are already pleasant places to fritter one’s life away amidst a cozy blend of caffeine, baked goods, Norah Jones, and argumentative but convivial layabouts. If you spend a lot of time in coffee shops and a lot of time in strip clubs, the idea of combining the two might seem appealing from a time-saving perspective — but who really wants to make their pleasures more efficient?

Ultimately, topless coffee shops merely give coffee shop owners an opportunity to concentrate less on the virtues that make a coffee shop appealing. Imagine, for example, two coffee shops in close proximity to each other, competing for each other’s business. One has 27 different kinds of beans, a wide range of fresh muffins, clean bathrooms. The other has half-naked women who are almost good-looking enough to be Hooters girls and $2 donuts. Human nature being what it is, the latter shop will do at least as well as the former, and probably better, until the former decides to go topless as well. When its owner discovers that with topless waitresses in his arsenal, he doesn’t have to offer 27 kinds of beans or replace his muffin stock each day, he won’t.

Eventually, every coffee shop in the land, and probably most donut shops, too, will feature topless employees. Strip clubs will no longer seem so magical — they’ll just be bars where your favorite waitress from the coffee shop moonlights. Fresh muffins and clean bathrooms will be impossible to find, except perhaps at the nation’s more entrepreneurial post offices and dry cleaners.

From time to time, some wild-eyed coffee shop patron, desperate with nostalgia, will start ranting about the incredibly robust espressos of yesteryear, about how much better everything used to be when Starbucks uniforms consisted of more than just a thong. He’ll rhapsodize about how good sandwiches were before the advent of topless delis, how toothcare used to be so much less painful before the advent of topless dentists. He’ll hatch plans to open up his own topped café, but fueled only with weak, watery Folgers, ignored by potential colleagues too busy staring at the new cashier girl to pay much attention to him, undercapitalized due to the constant tipping required by the new topless economy, he won’t ever get past the dreaming stage. None of this will happen over night, of course, but unfortunately, it will happen. Best to start developing a taste for tea as soon as possible. • 24 April 2009

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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