Java Enabled: The Café, Unplugged

Mar 25, 2009 at 5:07 pm
Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

I sit at the mouth of the winding Alice in Wonderland hallway that once bridged the two halves of Kaldi's Coffeehouse on DeMun Avenue. A black power cord snakes from my old clunker of a laptop, across the cracked and paint-splattered concrete floor, into the lone power outlet on the far wall.

I'm working on a research paper, nursing a bottomless cup of coffee, when a yellow exclamation point pops onto my screen: "Your battery is about to run out."

What? How? I've been plugged into the outlet this whole time. My computer doesn't wait for an answer. It alerts me that it will hibernate until I can be a more responsible computer-owner and provide appropriate sustenance.

So what did happen? Kaldi's cut the power.

At first, when I realized that the Kaldi's on DeMun had eliminated Wi-Fi and cut the power to its outlets, I was livid. Its whole weekday business was students! Stubborn Wi-Fi users could still crib access from Sasha's Wine Bar down the block, but that signal was weak and undependable. I was convinced that Kaldi's would come crawling back to its tech-savvy customers.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

click to enlarge Java Enabled: The Café, Unplugged
User "secumem," Wikipedia Commons
I once had a Spanish teacher who had moved to the U.S. only recently. "I don't understand the U.S.," she would complain. "People go to cafés to work -- nobody talks!"

She had a point. Americans love to work in cafés. Wireless Internet has only pushed this trend further. But it puts coffeehouses in a tough spot. How do you turn a profit when people pay for a single cup of coffee and then occupy a table for hours?

Is that really the fault of Internet squatters, though? After all, people spent hour after hour in cafés even before laptops and Wi-Fi turned coffeehouses into clusters of satellite offices.

I think cutting computer amenities has more to do with the culture that a café wants to evoke. Some coffeehouses embrace the laptop set with arms wide open. The old location of Blackberry Café (now home to Katie's Pizzeria Café) made me feel like I was in an off-campus annex of Saint Louis University's library rather than a coffee shop. With individual tables and lights, free Wi-Fi and plenty of wall outlets, the whole café was designed as a single-person experience. It was great to work in, but I'd never go there to socialize.

The Kaldi's on DeMun is one of the best places in St. Louis to meet someone. But how do you do that with your eyes burned into a LCD screen? When this location cut its computer amenities, it was free from the tangle of power cords on the floor and the computers cluttering tables like invasive weeds. Sure, it was an inconvenience at the time, but now I'm happier to have a place that can focus on coffee and people getting together.

Thanks to the ever-increasing mobility and battery life of laptops, no coffeehouse will be able to eliminate computers from its tables. And I admit: I, too, am part of the problem. I love working in cafés -- I'm writing this article in a café right now -- but there should be places where people can enjoy a drink in a (largely) smoke-free, open atmosphere and not have their conversation drowned out by the clacking of a keyboard.

I love having a café to work in, but one where I don't have to work is even better.

For a different take on coffeehouses and laptops, see this earlier Gut Check post.