Cafes used to be a place for people unhappy at home to come and find a temporary escape with a bit of company and of alcohol; for friends or dates to meet in a neutral space; for tourists to rest after long walks; for anyone who wanted some time alone sheltered from the elements to read the newspaper in peace; and for anyone who wanted to socialize to sit a a table, do some people-watching, and interact with friendly strangers. It was a very special place at the frontier between private and public life, playing a unique role in society: where else would you go EITHER if you wanted to be left alone OR if you wanted some company? I used to overhear heated conversations about sports, politics, and how to change the world.
Last summer I was passing through a village in central France on the day of the final of the World Cup, and stopped at the cafe to watch the game on their TV. The place was packed with people of all ages who had gathered there to watch the game together instead of each in their own home. It was the nexus of the village's social life. How old-fashioned!
Now, at least in the US, newspapers and books have all but disappeared, and in cafes interaction between people has gone down drastically. People still come to cafes for the illusion of socializing, but laptops are the new companions, and the place is full of individuals each focused on their own screen, some with headphones. The bodies are at the same location, but the minds are each in their own world, and contacts are minimal. The cafe has been reinvented as a variant of one's office.