December 21, 2011
Has 'free wi-fi' sucked the life out of coffeehouses?

coffee wifi.jpgRemember when coffeehouses were stimulating places full of intellectual rigor, lively conversations and, maybe, someone scribbling notes into a leather-bound journal or writing the next great short story?

OK, that coffeehouse was in Paris, and it never really existed on this side of the pond. Years ago, some of us would read about the so-called "Lost Generation," folks who traveled to Paris to absorb the culture, try their hand at a new way of living and maybe find some kind of artistic inspiration or stumble upon profundity. Eventually, they all seemed to pull up a chair at a little café, writing things in little notebooks before reconvening at Shakespeare and Co., the famous bookstore. Hemingway, Pound, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald. Even a bearded William Faulkner hit up Paris for a time. (A great book about this era, by the way, is by Morley Callaghan called "That Summer in Paris.")

Before the current wave - or third wave - of coffeehouses like Chocolate Fish, Old Soul, Temple, Naked and Broadacre, there was the ever-expanding empire called Starbucks. Before that? There was Weatherstone, Boulevard Coffee and Java City. Then it was left to Denny's and 7-Eleven, where you could give your java a jolt of "Irish cream" flavored creamer. I remember going to this great bookstore in Oxford, Miss., when I was attending a Faulkner confernence. It was called Square Books, and I thought it was so cool you could have a coffee and a pastry while sitting in a bookstore. Tattered Cover did the same thing in Denver. Then Barnes & Noble made it generic and widespread.

The new coffee joints generally have very good coffee, employees who are really into coffee and an ambience of stone-faced folks staring at their laptops or iPads. Books? What are those? Conversation? Ideas? That's so '80s. I have gone into coffeehouse after coffeehouse and noticed that no one was actually talking - or even enjoying coffee. Libraries are livelier, the waiting room at my dentist more fun.

That may be why I was encouraged by a recent story I read on the Sacramento Press site about a new locally owned business, Insight Coffee Roasters, at 8th and S. One of the owners, Ben Lance, actually addressed the issue when he said there were a limited number of power outlets for people to plug into:

"We don't want this to be a place where everyone is clicking away on their laptops and you're afraid to make a sound," Lance told Sac Press. "We want you to play a board game or sit and have a conversation."

I suppose wi-fi at this point is a deal with the devil. One shop somewhere provided free wi-fi, so folks with laptops went there, bought a coffee and surfed the web. The place got crowded. Others had to respond. So now nearly every coffee joint has free wi-fi. Who needs friends or conversation when you have wi-fi. Even Starbucks, which used to charge for it, gives it away. There's a guy at 15th and H who actually sits with his laptop on the sidewalk across the street from the Starbucks but within wi-fi range. At least that's interesting.

I suppose the stone-faced and hush-hush issue at coffee shops won't go away until wi-fi is everywhere. It would be nice to see these great places for coffee actually feel great when you're sitting there. I had a conversation at one once and had some hipster look at me like, "What are you doing? Talking? This is a coffeehouse."

My mistake.

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