During their heyday, they were dynamic sites for democratic political discussion and commerce. They were often called “penny universities” because for the penny price of a cup of coffee, you could listen to learned intellectuals expound on their areas of expertise.
In Germany, coffeehouses brought about a different state of affairs for women. As the industrial revolution brought German farmers into the towns, their wives were freed from the ordinary routine of agricultural life. With more free time, they came into contact with other townspeople, gathering over coffee to talk about Goethe or Beethoven, as well as the latest births, marriages and scandals. Uneasy husbands derisively termed these get-together's “Kaffeeklatsches” (literally, “coffee-gossip”), but for the women involved, they served as important opportunities to think and speak freely — often for the first time.
In other countries, especially the United States, seating areas for customers to relax and work are provided free of charge. Some espresso bars also sell coffee paraphernalia, candy, and even music. North American espresso bars were also at the forefront of widespread adoption of public WiFi access points to provide Internet services to people doing work on laptop computers on the premises.
The political nature of much of 1960s folk music made the music a natural tie-in with coffeehouses with their association with political action. A number of well-known performers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan began their careers performing in coffeehouses.
The exclusion of women from coffeehouses as guests was not universal, but does appear to have been common in Europe. In Germany, women frequented them, but in England and France they were banned.
Most coffeehouses of the 18th century would eventually be equipped with their own printing presses or incorporate a book shop.
In the 18th century, Dublin coffeehouses functioned as early reading centers and the emergence of circulation and subscription libraries that provided greater access to printed material for the public. The interconnectivity of the coffeehouse and virtually every aspect of the print trade were evidenced by the incorporation of printing, publishing, selling, and viewing of newspapers, pamphlets and books on the premises(.)
As coffeehouses were believed to be areas where anti-government gossip could easily spread, Queen Mary and the London City magistrates tried to prosecute people who frequented coffeehouses as they were liable to "spread false and seditious reports".
The coffeehouses were great social levelers, open to all men and indifferent to social status, and as a result associated with equality and republicanism. Entry gave access to books or print news. Coffeehouses boosted the popularity of print news culture and helped the growth of various financial markets including insurance, stocks, and auctions.
Anthony Wood observed of the coffee houses of Oxford in his Life and Times (1674) "The decay of study, and consequently of learning, are coffee houses, to which most scholars retire and spend much of the day in hearing and speaking of news".