A quiet place, comfortable surroundings and easy access to caffeine. That is the trifecta for anyone who has ever tried to find a cozy corner to work or study outside of an office. Bonus points for free Internet access.
Some chains (must I really name them?) have that formula down to a T. But as someone with a preference for eating and shopping local, I knew there had to be places to work and study locally, too. That's why I set out on a quest to find the best nooks of Tampa Bay.
The key to finding those hidden corners turned out to be word of mouth. Everyone either has a favorite or is still looking for one, and once they find it, they are more than willing to share.
My first tip was Wings Bookstore in St. Petersburg. The bookstore has just enough tranquility so you can concentrate but not so much you'll feel awkward if your typing gets a little too intense. The on-site coffee shop serves fair trade coffee, teas, smoothies and pastries; meditation music plays softly in the background and a faint (not overwhelming) smell of incense fills the air, making the atmosphere welcoming for work or just some relaxing reading either inside or outside on the patio.
At Small Adventures Bookshop in Gulfport, the nook is perfect for those rare not-too-hot, not-too-cold days when living in Florida feels glorious. A patio table and chairs on the side of the building with plants and a water fountain next to it make for a home-like set up, and if no table is needed, the backyard has benches under the trees and on the grass for some quiet reading outdoors. The system in place is BYOC (bring your own caffeine), which also applies to food, so snacks and drinks from anywhere are welcome in the premises. Just don't expect Wi-Fi in this used bookstore. As the owner, Jan Dutton, warns, "We're Old World here and I'm okay with that."
A similar setup is available at Inkwood Books in Tampa. The porch facing Armenia Avenue has two rocking chairs, a counter with high chairs and a couple of area rugs. No Wi-Fi, but who needs that when you can just read with a slight breeze and sound of cars passing by in the background? Go in the middle of a weekday or anytime on weekends to avoid the sound of rush hour traffic, though. There's nothing relaxing about that.
Just down the road, at Piquant, the setting is the complete opposite. The corner bakery in Hyde Park has a swanky decor with leather booths indoors and tables aplenty in an enclosed sidewalk area outdoors. Internet access is readily available and it is the only place in Tampa Bay that makes its own version of the cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid that is bound to give a delicious sugar high to any work session.
Finally, any of the Gulf beaches on a weekday would be a given. But for those in need of a mix of both old and new worlds in a place that is comfortable no matter the weather, Indian Shores Coffee Company offers a happy medium. On Gulf Boulevard, the little coffee shop offers three possible nooks: inside its cabin-like interior with a couch and living room area; outside on an enclosed lanai; or in a front garden area with tables, water fountain and the occasional ocean breeze. Internet is available in all three areas and the friendly staff keeps the coffee, tea and freshly-made-from-scratch pastries going "until they get tired," which usually means 5 p.m. Just be sure to avoid Friday afternoons if you really need to concentrate. That's when the place hosts an open mic night.
With all of these options, who needs a generic chain?