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U of C
A caffeinated key to campus life. By Aliya Sternstein


A textbook, PaperMate pen and spiral notebook lay on the table. Five backpack-carrying students have just entered. Until they knock into my reading area, I’m oblivious: deep in thought. Then it happens. The latte spills, staining my notebook pages.
Obviously, I’m not at Van Pelt Library. Who can study there? It’s only at Starbucks that my reflections on The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin can truly run free. Books and iced tall vanilla skim lattes are my friends. Yes, I’m addicted to coffee-shop studying.
By my calculation, the University currently provides at least a half-dozen java joints for students like me—those undergraduates who crave caffeine, who need the slightly distracting hubbub of espresso machinery while learning.
Several types of coffee flow freely. Starbucks dominates the campus, occupying a storefront and two cafes—in the Penn Bookstore and the Silfen Student Center in Williams Hall. The XandO coffee bar in Sansom Common serves up its own beans. The Comet, on 41st Street between Walnut and Chestnut, offers La Colombe grounds. Bucks County Coffee, across from the Law School on Sansom Street, delivers—well, Bucks County Coffee. There are other breeds I have yet to find.
Several types of people sip regularly. Students, professors, Penn employees, visiting professionals and community residents. We’re all a big, hyper family.
The sounds. Coffee houses may not be as silent as the Fisher Fine Arts Library, but that ornate University fixture is too calm for me. Jazz and blues melodies make for a soothing, if not quiet, study session. In the background, frappuccino and smoothie appliances gently whir. Even the murmur of other people’s conversations provides the perfect amount of diversion to remind me that I’m supposed to be studying, not wandering off into “what-am-I-doing-tonight?” land.
The tastes. Lattes, cappuccinos and espresso shots satisfy my bitter taste buds—and caffeinate my entire body. Should the shakes get too bad for taking notes, hot teas and chai lattes are menu regulars around here. And there are plenty of baked goods to accompany the stimulants. The oatmeal-raisin, chocolate-chip and peanut-butter cookies are quite energizing for computation and analyzing. If I want to forsake my sweet tooth, most coffee establishments serve up sandwiches, too.
This experience comes at a cost. Starbucks and XandO are pricey. Locally owned espresso spots like the Comet, and the less trendy franchise, Bucks County, help out undergrad paupers like myself, who can’t seem to kick the coffee-shop habit. In general, I’m a fan of any place willing to serve espresso and milk in a cup near a table with enough room for a bulk pack.
Besides the expense, food at these places has another downside: the mess. Muffin morsels on psychology pages. Sticky fingers later flipping those same pages. It’s not pretty. XandO’s trademark make-your-own S’mores can be something of a study challenge. There, I’ve got marshmallow, chocolate and graham-cracker crumbs coming between me and my notebooks. It’s difficult to highlight text and simultaneously roast those marshmallows—but I’m practicing.
The comfort factor. The tables are tiny. Yet, I find that cozy chairs make up for that. Students stand in line for the oversized armchairs. I love the local artwork hanging from the walls and the seats arranged next to windows. Some people park themselves at the choice tables for hours. Luckily, not all coffee-shop students are so fixed. Study-group students are a more transient bunch. They’ll meet to plan next week’s class presentation or cram for the following day’s midterm, then leave. I often catch a space as one of these groups packs its bags. The Grade A tables are available, if you’re smart about snatching one.
OK, these coffee spots are not the most well-lit study environments. I rectify the situation by sitting outside. Actually, I’ve observed that the outside seats fill up just as quickly as the mammoth armchairs. Naturally lit tables and caffeine are popular in University City. However, I do get the occasional bird poop on my pages going this route. All part of the ambience.
As the coffee aroma wafts through campus, I think it’s a sign of a changing retail industry. The Starbucks I frequent most regularly—on 34th Street between Sansom and Walnut—has proved profitable enough for expansion. Hooray! Now they’re constructing an even larger franchise on the Walnut Street corner. More tables for me.
Bucks County Coffee will branch out at Penn’s western end in the spring, at 40th and Locust streets. The new place has been hyped as the biggest Bucks ever, with over 100 seats. More espresso. More cookies. More happy studying space.
In fact, pretty much the only spot on campus that lacks an oasis to quench that caffeine thirst is the Library. It’s time to allow students to slam their 25-pound backpacks on a stool at Van Pelt—just like they do everywhere else.

Aliya Sternstein is a history and psychology major from Potomac, Maryland.

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