Welcome to Read This Fanfiction, a monthly deep dive into the world of fic: its history, its future, and all its splendors. In the world of fanfiction there are tropes — common themes and storylines that writers and readers flock to, be it out of interest or a desire to scratch a specific itch. From hurt/comfort to University AU, these tropes are popular for a reason. But where do they come from, and what about them resonates so deeply? This month, as part of our Origins of Fanfiction series, SYFY WIRE explores the origins of the Coffee Shop AU.
With 22,749 works published on fanfiction hosting site Archive of Our Own, the Coffee Shop AU is one of the most popular alternate universes in the fanfic world. These stories commonly transport characters into life as a barista, busboy, or writer in a coffee shop, allowing the story to play out from there. Regardless of what job or purpose the characters may have in said story, the coffee shop is a prominent, if not dominating factor. It's all about the coffee — and (usually) some love on the side. This trope has also turned into a sort of requirement for all fandoms, an inside joke amongst fanfiction writers. Has a fandom truly made it in the fanfiction world if they don't have a Coffee Shop AU fic?
With so many works set in the alternate universe of lattes and macchiatos, one has to wonder where it all came from. After all, who decided one day to write a fanfic and thought that it would be neat if they were baristas instead of boyband members? Yes, boyband members. That's because the Coffee Shop AU can be trailed back to a single *NSYNC bandfic: "Café de l'Amour," by NSyncGrrl, aka famed LGBTQ+ romance author J.M. Snyder.
THE BIRTH OF THE COFFEE SHOP AU
Back in 2001, Snyder accidentally created one of the most popular alternate universe tropes in fanfiction. At the time, she didn't think much of it. She was journaling and lamenting that pre-teens writing *NSYNC slash fic (male homosexual fanfiction that is typically sexual in nature) were writing more than she was. Then she wondered if such a thing actually existed. Turns out, yes, it did. However, the existing work consisted mostly of self-insert fic (where the author writes themself into the story via an idealized character) with Justin Timberlake.
That felt wrong to her. "If he were going to hook up with anyone, it'd be someone in the band, most likely Lance," Snyder explained to SYFY WIRE of her thought process at the time. So she started to write her own RPS (real person shipping/slash fanfiction). That satisfied the itch for a while, but she quickly grew tired of the bandfic formula and wanted something new. That's where the coffee came in.
Snyder decided to draw on personal experience and started a series wherein the *NSYNC bandmates held regular jobs. All of these were ones she had worked herself, allowing her to add personal touches to portray a more authentic experience.
"When I first graduated from college, I worked for a few months as a barista at a coffee shop, so the story is heavily inspired by my experiences there," Snyder explains. As to what made "Café de l'Amour" popular, she believes people just liked seeing the bandmates doing something other than being in a world-famous boyband. And indeed, that is one of the core features of alternate universe (AU) fanfictions. That question of "what if?" and the implication that someone's favorite celebrity or character could be right around the corner.
"AUs put the power firmly in the writer's hands, allowing them to do whatever they want with this world, while likewise providing them with the means of challenging an aspect of the canon or surrounding culture that doesn't sit right with them," explains Katharine McCain, who recently graduated with a Ph.D. in English from Ohio State University with a specialization in Television and Media Studies and a focus in Fan Studies.
Her dissertation unpacks and explores the Coffee Shop AU, and her research as a whole looks to expand beyond explaining fan behavior. More specifically, McCain wants to explore why fanfiction is a worthy enterprise and seeks to highlight the artistic merit of fanfiction as a valuable text, not just in fandom but as real literature. The Coffee Shop AU just happens to be her favorite. As such, she understands the anatomy of what makes certain AUs what they are, and perhaps none more so than the Coffee Shop one Snyder created.
THE INGREDIENTS OF A COFFEE SHOP AU
The Coffee Shop AU is relatively and reliably formulaic. Oftentimes one character is a barista and the other will be a recurring customer, perhaps a favorite customer, or a shy writer-type who works in the coffee shop. There may be flirtation over ordering, or if the pair are both baristas, there might be a latte-making rivalry of sorts.
However, what truly makes a Coffee Shop AU fanfiction is the setting. The coffee shop itself needs to be a character in its own right. The story plays out within — the drama, the romance — and it almost universally becomes a home away from home for the characters.
"The café tends to be romanticized in a manner that contrasts corporate coffee chains," McCain explains. "The setting should be inviting for the reader, a domestic, often quirky space that evokes feelings of comfort."
In fact, it was this feeling of comfort that drew Snyder to write a story taking place in a coffee shop in the first place, as well as her aforementioned previous experience working as a barista after college.
"[The Coffee Shop AU] speaks to our love of cozy little shops where we can mingle or read or work while sipping specialty drinks," Snyder adds.
All that said, there has been a notable, realistic shift in the representation of coffee shops in fanfiction, with many stories diving into the difficulties of service work, as well as featuring more corporate chains rather than local, mom-and-pop shops. McCain describes this as a perfect example of how a genre can change and adapt over time.
What hasn't changed? The symbolism. Most Coffee Shop AU fics use food and drink as plot and literary devices, or even as characters themselves. McCain explains that these elements function as metaphors, innuendos, symbols of queerness, and even milestone's of a couple's relationship. How often has a muffin been more than a muffin? Or the event of finally crafting that perfect, yet difficult, latte? These elements, so unique to the coffee shop setting, are intrinsic to the overall painting of the AU.
This is true for Snyder as well who drew on the specialty espresso drinks she'd make.
"The coffee shop where I worked always had a ‘drink of the day' that we had to come up with. Some of us had a lot of fun with it, and I used that as a way to infuse humor into the story," she explains.
ITS ENDURING QUEER POPULARITY
The popularity of the Coffee Shop AU cannot be questioned. As to what draws people to it constantly, well, there isn't a simple answer.
"The Coffee Shop AU is targeted enough that a fan knows precisely what they'll be reading and simultaneously broad enough that it invites endless variations," McCain explains. While angst and darker-tinged fics are very popular, she suggests that the Coffee Shop AU is like the bread and butter of fandom writing.
"It provides the safe, fluffy, happy-ending content that many fans crave after a more action-packed canon," she says. "It's also comforting in its familiarity, pulling from well-known rom-com tropes and reflecting real-life experiences."
One of those real-life experiences is that of being queer. The Coffee Shop AU is heavily queer coded. This isn't just because the original, "Café de l'Amour," was queer, either, but the genre's origin does lend credence to the trope's trajectory as a welcoming, safe storytelling device for LGTBQ+ writers and readers.
It's important to distinguish that in many Coffee Shop AU fics homophobia is rarely mentioned or doesn't exist. It's a safe space where falling in love in public with another is celebrated. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. It's normal. McCain describes it best, pointing out that Coffee Shop AU fics don't tend to exist in a fantasy or science fiction world. They exist in our world.
"I'd argue that queer romances — particularly slash — dominate most fic genres, allowing fans to push back against queerbaiting in canon, or to transform canons with no queer rep at all," McCain explains. "Any fic can accomplish this work, but the Coffee Shop AU provides a more relatable examination of queer identity that many fans crave."
That said, a lot of media today still denies queer relationships the adorable meet-cutes that heteronormative characters get, such as Jonathan and Sara in Serendipity or Snow and Charming in Once Upon a Time. Even non-human characters who are coded heterosexual like Wall-E and EVE of Wall-E get a charming meet-cute. The fics grant those experiences and tropes to queer couples and queer fans, allowing them the same feel-good queer storytelling that is still universally lacking in film and television today. Notable examples of this are Castiel immediately being sent to super Hell after confessing his love for Dean in Supernatural, and the constant fridging of lesbian characters such as Lexa in The 100 and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Burying your gays is a harmful trope that is still extremely prevalent when it has no reason to be. It should come as no surprise that fans who identify as queer would seek out alternate sources of entertainment to fulfill the void of feel-good content left behind by today's media.
The Coffee Shop AU shall endure as one of the most loved tropes of the fanfiction world, not only for its comfort and familiarity, but for its ability to represent the underrepresented in a positive way. And to think, it all started with Justin Timberlake.
"Café de l'Amour" cannot be found in its original form online any longer. However, that's because Snyder updated the characters and published it as original fiction. If you wish to read the story that started it all, you can read it and other work by Snyder at JMS Books LLC. The small print has published LGBTQ+ romance, erotic romance, and YA since 2010.