Coffee shops with Wi-Fi offer a cozy place to connect
Published: Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 10:28 a.m.
Since its debut around the turn of the century, Wi-Fi seems to have taken to coffee shops in much the same way as the old song lyric "… you can't have one without the other."
Truly, you'd be hard pressed to find a coffee shop, whether a link in a chain or a mom-and-pop independent, that does not provide patrons with the wireless portal to the Internet — and usually at no cost.
Every day in just about every coffee shop in the nation you'll find folk in a corner, pouring over a laptop, tablet or even a smartphone soaking up a share of the Wi-Fi all around them. Some are studying or checking email; but for others, the coffee shop is the telecommuting office of the 21st century.
And sometimes they're at it for long stretches of the day.
"We like to call it camping," says a barista at Volta Coffee, Tea & Chocolate in Gainesville.
And while on occasion a "camper" might push the border into "squatting," for the most part coffee shop proprietors in Marion and Alachua counties are cool with it — though some do put some limits on Wi-Fi usage like issuing a password with the purchase of something.
"I used to camp here," notes Volta barista Matt Demers. "I wrote more than half my dissertation here at Volta." And now he serves others, many also working on university papers — like Lauren Smith, writing her master's thesis at another coffee shop across town. "I needed a place to work other than my home," she says, "a place that's quiet and peaceful."
Still, whether it's called "camping," "squatting" or just "chilling," for some proprietors the surfers ringing the room "mean cars in the parking lot," notes Jeryl Durand, who owns the Great American Coffee Roasters in Ocala with her husband, Steve. After all, for the year-old independent coffee shop, business is business.
Coffee shops long have been at the center of contemplation and debate. Reportedly, the Boston Tea Party was brewed at a shop called the Green Dragon. A coffee shop in New York eventually became the New York Stock Exchange.
Perhaps one of the most famous of all coffee shop campers in recent times is J.K. Rowling, author of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." According to Potter lore, her beloved story was written in 1994 at the Nicholson Café in Edinburgh, Scotland as she sipped coffee, her baby girl asleep on a seat beside her.
Like the Green Dragon and that shop in New York, the Nicholson, renamed the Spoon Café Bistro three years ago, didn't have Wi-Fi in its Rowling days. But it probably does now.
In a double-handful of years, Wi-Fi in public places has become a big deal. According to a 2011 report by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, open public hotspots are expected to number about 5.8 million by 2015, up from not quite a million in 2010. A Wi-Fi report by Devicescape Software in 2010 identifies cafes and coffee shops as "the most widely used hotspots outside of the home or office."
Meanwhile, mobile-networking-leader Cisco's Visual Networking Index predicts that this year "the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world's population."
Alex Mills, a Gainesville writing tutor, sits beside the window at Coffee Culture on Newberry Road reading a netbook and preparing for her next client. She says she'd rather get ready here than at her office across the street.
"It's more conducive," she says. "It makes it so much better to have a nice place to sit." She often suggests parents of her clients wait at the shop instead of in her office. Plus, she says she's supporting a local business.
John Pearce, a barista at this Coffee Culture, says a lot of students, particularly law students, spend much of their study time in the small shop. "It's like a library here at night," he adds.
In Ocala, Mike Parker owns a car in the Great American Coffee parking lot on South Magnolia Avenue. He comes in about three times a week and sits at a side counter specifically for campers; on this day he opens his laptop to Deuteronomy.
Typically he buys a cup of tea to sip while he reads. Sometimes he conducts Bible study for others. "It's a welcome, warm environment, a local hometown feel here," he says. "You feel like you're wanted."
And he is, says proprietor Steve Durand. "Mike's not a squatter, he's one of my friends. He can come in and hang out all day long. In just the amount of tea he drinks, he's more than paid for my Wi-Fi." And that's just one customer. Another friend, Durand adds, for weeks operated an online bank from a Great American table.
A few blocks away, Tom Weaver closes his laptop in the back corner of the Starbucks on Ocala's downtown square; though still early, he's just finished playing "World of Warcraft." He dropped his daughter off at day care a couple hours earlier, and gets in game time before work. "I've been coming here for years," he says. "It just occupies some time a couple days a week."
Others don't leave the coffee house for work elsewhere. Rob Bailey and Jordan Miller sit at adjoining tables at Maude's Classic Café in Gainesville's Sun Center three, four, sometimes five days a week. Both work for Tutoring Zone, an online tutoring service for students at University of Florida, Florida State and Indiana University.
"I just find it easier to work here," Miller says. "It's a nice atmosphere, there's decent music and a lot fewer distractions."
And they're welcome to stay, says Layne Wrighton, who's more or less Maude's general manager; welcome, that is, "as long as they're ordering something."
Thus the crux: A coffee shop is a business. And as long as campers are taking up tables, occasionally there's no room for other patrons who want to simply sit, sip and slip out.
"For a while we had some gamers," Wrighton says. "They wouldn't order anything and then sit all day taking up two and three tables. That can be frustrating." Worse, there've been "squatters" connecting to Wi-Fi on Maude's outdoor patio, she adds, who'd walk across the street to Starbucks, buy a drink there and bring it back.
What the … frustrating? Try infuriating.
"If you're going to sit at a table for 10 hours, order something," Wrighton pleads. "Please?" Most of her Wi-Fi patrons, she continues, are a delight and typically pay their way. "And they tip. You can hang out as long as you want as long as you tip."
With this growing camping culture, there's also an etiquette beginning to develop; the basic rule of thumb is buy something every hour you're there, whether connected or not.
"It doesn't have to be big: a coffee, tea, a pastry, lunch," notes Sam Title, CEO of "The Coffice," a small but growing networked affiliation of coffee shop telecommuters. "A coffee shop is a business, and they have to pay for the Wi-Fi. You're using their space, their service, their amenities. It's the least you can do."
Other guidelines he suggests include: Avoid uploading/downloading extremely large files. Observe the "Grandma Rule" when viewing online content (How would grandma feel if she saw what you're seeing?). When done, close the connection. Your laptop bag doesn't need a chair; put it on the floor. When in doubt, ask.
Based in Toronto, Title tapped into the concept nearly three years ago after finding himself at a neighborhood coffee shop daily seeking new work. Now, he works nearly full time at the shop.
"I noticed a bustling community online using coffee shops for business, taking up residence in them," he says. And, he adds, recent surveys show it's paying off for employers who allow or even encourage telecommuting. "There's a decrease in sick days taken, it's better for the environment and it cuts down on commuting costs. Morale is higher."
Further, using the Telework Savings Calculator at teleworkresearchnetwork.com, he estimates the combined savings of company, community and individual at $900 billion per year if 50 million telecommuters worked from home half time on a regular basis.
"There's a need to recognize that people do this," Title adds. "It's all about the new work lifestyle that's more than working in a cubicle."
Rick Allen can be reached at email@example.com.
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