The Hidden Costs of Free
Is free Wi-Fi killing coffeehouse culture?
– Steven Wright in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes
I'm sitting on the back patio of a South Austin coffee shop, idling an afternoon away with a chai tea and a dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac's hep-caffeinated novel The Subterraneans, which, as it happens, revolves around the beatnik-and-coffeehouse scene in late Fifties San Francisco. I can dig it, but I'd be digging it a whole lot more if I were inside, where the A/C is blowing cooler than Miles and Ossie Davis combined. Outside, where I am, the mercury is cracking 102 degrees in the shade, and my Kerouac's getting all soggy and uncool on account of the steady beads of sweat drip-dropping off my forehead and onto the page.
I'd planned on sitting in the refreshingly chilled and impressively chill interior, but the problem is, you see, that there are no tables, no couches, nor even any bar stools to sit on. They're all taken up by MacBooked and iPhoned laptoppers, two of whom have managed to take up a pair of four-top tables all by their lonesomes. Some of these folks appear to actually be drinking coffee or munching on muffins or otherwise doing their small bit to support this locally owned, fully independent South Austin java joint. Good for them.
But others, maybe even half of the total customer count, appear to be here for the free Wi-Fi and not much else, like bar mitzvah buffet-line freeloaders, taking what is offered and given freely but failing to glom onto the seemingly obvious fact that, hey, this is a coffee shop. By which I mean it's a business – a totally funky, DIY, "screw you, Starbucks" kind of business, to be sure, but a business nonetheless – one with overhead and bills, including one for all that "free" Wi-Fi. It's only free if you're not the one picking up the Time Warner tab.
And is it just me, or is nobody in here talking to anyone else, like, at all? It's a coffeehouse, for crying out loud. Granted, it's three in the afternoon, but still ... shouldn't I be hearing the traditional, low background mutter of jittery, caffeine-jagged confabbery? Shouldn't someone, anyone, be saying something coffeehouse apropos, something intellectually fatuous and obscure but nevertheless intriguing, something like, "Okay, I'm Dostoyevsky; you're Anna; we're writing The Gambler," or, "Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?"
Eyeballing and eavesdropping the room presents me with an uncomfortable realization: There is no slack in these people. They are hard at work, intent on their LCD screens, potentially connected to everything and everyone (via Wi-Fi) but, in the most common of all American communities, i.e., your friendly neighborhood coffeehouse, strangely disconnected from one another. It's like watching THX 1138 meets the Philip Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with better hair. There's no poetry here. This is not what we meant when we said, "Keep Austin Weird."
What gives? How did Austin's multitude of noncorporate coffee cribs become too often overrun with 10-hours-at-a-stretch, ether-leeching, unthirsty, and unhungry cheapskates?
Whatever happened to the subterraneans? Kerouac's crew, brewed and stewed, caffeinated and nicotine-stained, written to life in a weekendlong, Benzedrined fever dream: "They are hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike."
Wherever they are, they are not right here right now. Maybe they're all online.
Native New Yorker Art Silver and his now-ex-wife moved from Berkeley, Calif., to Austin in 1983 and very soon after founded the city's most legendary coffeehouse, Captain Quackenbush's Intergalactic Dessert Company and Espresso Cafe, at 2120 Guadalupe. Perfectly situated a stoner's throw from the University of Texas and three doors down from Sound Exchange, Silver's original Quack's was a coffee joint on the face of it, but it was also part community center, part pre- and post-party layover, and part artistic amoeba. It sucked in artists and freaks, intellectuals and freethinkers, the good, the bad, and the really, really weird.
It played a key role in Austin's defining film, Richard Linklater's Slacker (virtually the entire cast and crew were Quack's regulars), the Austin Film Society, and countless other satellite projects and careers. It was a coffee shop that was actually its own subculture. In 1999, due in part to the cost of maintaining the space, Silver closed up shop on the Drag and focused his energies on Quack's 43rd Street Bakery, which had debuted the year before.
But enough about the hypercaffeinated past. I spoke to Silver about the ostensibly decaf/half-caf/Wi-Fi present. Has Austin's coffee culture really hit some sort of Wi-Fi-enabled wall? And has it affected Quack's in particular?
"I don't think it's any different from when we had Quack's on the Drag," says Silver with a shrug. "Back then we'd get students who would come in, leave their books at a table, go off to class, and then come back, claiming that table as their own. I think the Wi-Fi and the laptops, at least here [at Quack's], are just an updated version of that."
Has he seen the communal coffee-shop culture that burgeoned back at Captain Quackenbush's change significantly over the years? Is it still alive and well at Quack's 43rd? Or has the absence of a set of socially accepted guidelines for those who utilize Wi-Fi in coffee shops – something that's been much discussed in online java forums – resulted in a less social, more techno-narcissistic clientele?
"Well, generally speaking," says the unflappable Silver, "there's a tremendous lack of etiquette in society as a whole. People in coffeehouses, in particular, feel perfectly free to do things that they'd never think of doing in a fancy restaurant, such as move tables together or pull them apart or take chairs outside. But we tolerate it because that's the way it is in a coffeehouse.
"As for the culture aspect, we still have a few customers from the old Quack's who still come around. It's not so different from what it's always been. It has a life of its own."
Although Quack's 43rd Street Bakery hasn't experienced any negative impact from its free Wi-Fi, several other coffeehouses contacted for this article had plenty to gripe about, and with good reason.
(Only Jason Burch, owner of Flightpath Coffee House, demurred speaking about any major negative impact of Wi-Fi, writing via e-mail: "My business is geared towards those people who are specifically looking for a place to be constructive. It is the least social environment of all the coffee shops I have visited. My clientele is generally those working on advanced university degrees, Home-Office types, freelancers, etc. Most people are working quietly and do not think of The Flightpath as a place to make new acquaintances.")
Given the sheer number of coffeehouses in Austin, both established (Little City, Jo's, Halcyon, Epoch Coffee, Flipnotics, Progress, Spider House, and, of course, multinational corporate behemoth Starbucks, which charges for Wi-Fi via AT&T) and more recent ventures (Once Over Coffee Bar, Clementine, Fair Bean), it's difficult to get solid figures on how much Wi-Fi freeloading, with all its attendant problems, is affecting indie Austin coffeehouses on the whole.
But there's no mistaking that a backlash is coalescing around the topic. The Aug. 6 edition of The Wall Street Journal ran an article headlined "No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users," and coffee-centric online forums are filled to the bitter brim with stories of coffeehouses resorting to various methods to combat Wi-Fi abuse, among them Victrola Coffee and Art in Seattle – which shuts down its free Wi-Fi on weekends – and countless others that, noting the European model of keeping its own centuries-old coffeehouse and cafe culture sacrosanct, have relegated Wi-Fi and laptop use to the omnipresent Internet cafes.
In Austin, however, there's a sense that things are coming to a head. Both baristas and owners interviewed for this article offered up numerous complaints about a new generation of laptop campers who, for whatever reason, feel a sense of unwarranted – and just plain rude – entitlement when it comes to the definition of "free" Wi-Fi.
Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse owner/founder Leslie Martin notes that since Bouldin is also a restaurant with limited indoor seating, laptoppers who arrive early, stay late, and purchase the minimal amount of food or drink, if they purchase anything at all, have a seriously deleterious effect on the always shaky indie-business bottom line. Although she's quick to point out that she has no problem whatsoever with regulars who daily come in, power up, and then order food or drinks throughout the day. The trouble comes from the ones who wander in specifically to take advantage of Bouldin's free Wi-Fi without stopping to consider that they are, after all, in a restaurant/coffeehouse dependent on sales, service, and tips for its survival. The message is, or should be, patently obvious: Support your local South Austin coffeehouse and eatery, and it will support you right back. But that's increasingly not the way things are going.
"We pay $120 a month for our Wi-Fi from Time Warner," explains Martin, "and then we pay Less Networks a monthly charge to monitor and manage the equipment, which is basically a commercial router specifically designed for many simultaneous users. In addition, we have a $1,400 monthly electrical bill – part of that is due to the fact that we have a full kitchen – and the overhead, you know, adds up.
"Small, neighborhood coffeehouses like Bouldin or the Green Muse already have the inherent issue of trying to make money on, essentially, a cup of coffee. When you factor in the milk, the cups, the straws, the napkins, and you're charging, on average, $1.50 a cup, then you're barely making money to begin with.
"How do coffee shops make money when they're filled with people who buy one cup of coffee and take up a table for over three hours?" asks Martin."For whatever reason, people feel like they are entitled to use the Wi-Fi without a purchase and for as long as they want in a coffee shop. Ultimately, it's a matter of respect."
Lee Brock, co-owner of the Green Muse Cafe (formerly the 503 Coffee Bar), has nothing but sympathy for Martin and other Austin indie coffeehouse owners. For him, the problem of laptopping layabouts – as opposed to regulars who may stay long but order much and tip well – has gotten to the point where he has to take into consideration the actual square inches of his tables, in order to fit as many wage-paying tabletops as possible without crossing those murky personal space boundaries. Laptop campers, as a rule, tend to do their Wi-Fi work in solitary and in silence. In another surreal twist, many of these campers, possibly freed from the shackles of their soul-crushing, day-job cubicles by cutbacks and downsizing, create their own no less partitioned simulacra of workplace cubicles via Wi-Fi-enabled coffee- house camping.
"It's not our regulars that are the problem," emphasizes Brock. "It's the ones who aren't the regulars, who don't particularly care about supporting your independent coffeehouse. We've had people park in our parking lot and not even set foot in the Green Muse, because they can get our free Wi-Fi in their car. So many of these campers who come and plug in give us attitude because they don't get free refills. Well, we can't offer free refills because some people will nurse a single cup of coffee for eight to 10 hours and abuse our hospitality."
Over at Ruta Maya, unquestionably Austin's funkiest, most community-minded coffeehouse since its first location at the corner of Fourth and Lavaca (now Halcyon) opened in the early Nineties, baristas Kristen Verrill and Adam Glasseye, both of whom worked at Flipnotics prior to Ruta, agree that the core of the Wi-Fi/coffeehouse subculture clash is a simple lack of common courtesy, because there are not yet any socially agreed-upon rules about emergent Wi-Fi and laptop behavior.
"Coffee shops are a second home," says Glasseye. "It's not just a Wi-Fi/laptop problem. Even the artists and the thinkers don't always buy anything, either. And that's because we have become a community center, which, in the long run, brings in more business because you're just that much more welcoming.
"Part of it, too, is that the rise of Starbucks has fundamentally changed coffeehouse culture. I call it the 'chai-latte theory.' It used to be that people kind of knew what they wanted when they walked into a coffeehouse – they'd order a chai, they'd order a macchiato, they knew what a latte was, but then, suddenly they started calling it a 'chai latte,' and things changed. And the Wi-Fi issue fits into that. Cafes have become a service. They're not a cultural haven like they once were, but we here at Ruta Maya try very hard to maintain that cultural, community-minded identity by offering yoga and other things like that. But it's a fight."
Cherrywood Coffeehouse is my final stop on this increasingly jittery survey of the changing mug of Austin's vast, tech-streaming caffeine scene, and it turns out to be the least laptopped and most refreshingly unpretentious neighborhood coffee bar and restaurant I've never been to. That's because up until last January, it was Quack's Maplewood Bakery, before New Orleans native and former Ruta Mayan Ryan Marks and his wife, Jennifer (who manages the couple's other coffee venture, the Garden District Coffee House), bought the property at 1400 E. 38½ with the aim of setting up a truly welcoming coffeehouse/bar/restaurant in their own neighborhood.
With its spacious interior, massive kitchen abilities, and front porch lounging area, it's a far cry from its former incarnation as the fondly remembered hangover helper Pato's Tacos. But Ryan, having put in 16 years at Ruta Maya's various locations, including his own Ruta Maya Rio Grande, seems to know what he's doing. There's an insanely comfortable couch, Rory Skagen dinosaur-themed artwork on the walls, and a friendly barista with a goofy, gorgeous smile. There are also a couple of laptops going, but no one seems to be doing much of anything other than chilling, chatting, and, yes, chewing. I did say Ryan was from New Orleans. In short, this place feels like a frosty pint of Victory on a sweltering summer Saturday afternoon. Sweet.
"We live just down the street from here," says Ryan, "and I had been keeping my eye on the location ever since Pato's burned down and then was rebuilt, badly, and then eventually went under and later became Quack's. So when that fizzled and the property became available, I bought it."
"It's very much a work in progress," adds Jennifer Marks.
Of all the coffeehouses I've been to while researching the whole Wi-Fi peril aspect of this story, Cherrywood is the least hectic and the most relaxing. The twentysomething blond kid trackpadding across his laptop to my right could be working on his great American novel or simply surfing the Net. Either way, he has the slouchy posture of the truly relaxed, something you see less and less of in coffeehouses these days.
"As far as the Wi-Fi thing goes," says Ryan, "we haven't had much of a problem, even though we do offer it free and we do have two free computers for the customers to use. Both here and at the Garden District, which is much smaller, I find that [the use of free Wi-Fi] has been within acceptable limits. This is part of our business, and we have had to confront some people."
"I would expect a little courtesy from people," interjects Jennifer, "and here it's not as much of an issue. But at Garden District, particularly in the spring, if you have people camped out on the tables, it never fails that they'll pick the largest table to spread out on. And then families will come in and not have a place to sit. It's a fine line. You do want to offer the service, and you don't want to step on anybody's toes, because the people who do use the wireless are also a lot of our regular customers. But if we're busy, I will ask somebody to move to a smaller table so that I can use that table for somebody who's buying a meal or a family or a couple. It's kind of a balancing act."
Cherrywood's vibe is unhurried, almost, dare I say it, decaf, but then again this is the middle of the afternoon. It's the kind of place where a bebop-backed, neo-beat poetry reading might not be out of the question later on, once the sun sets and the artist-types wake up and wander in from the residential neighborhood that surrounds the place. Clearly, free Wi-Fi, laptopping, and the community traditions of coffeehouse culture – the best of both the analog and the digital worlds, finely ground, never bitter – are not opposing forces at Cherrywood Coffeehouse.
So maybe there's more hope for coffeehouse and Wi-Fi culture to exist hand in hand than it at first appears, with just enough commonsensical etiquette and plain old-fashioned DIY courtesy to keep the two from killing each other. And as for the hipster coffeehouse poetry? I'll leave you not with Kerouac, because we've already been there, but with some faux-beat spieling penned by screenwriter Charles B. Griffith for director Roger Corman's classic tale of art, coffee, and bad barista behavior, A Bucket of Blood:
"I will talk to you of art, for there is nothing else to talk about, for there is nothing else. Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art. Burn gas, buggies, and whip your sour cream of circumstance ... and hope."