What? No Wi-fi?
A quiet counterculture is building in the world of coffee shops. You probably don’t even notice it in your neighborhood. It’s starting very modestly, and I doubt it will supplant the Starbucks model we’ve come to know and, in my case, grudgingly accept.
One afternoon my wife and I set out with our laptops, looking forward to a couple of quiet and productive hours at a nearby, locally-owned coffee purveyor on trendy Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. We had noticed this store on the corner for some time. It looked very attractive from the outside – giant, plate-glass windows that let in an abundance of sunlight, bright interior, a spare, clean look. The kind of place where you can sit quietly, clear your mind and get creative.
Approaching the door, however, we noticed very few places to sit – only benches around the walls and tiny, low, round-topped wooden tables. None of the overstuffed, comfy chairs we’d come to expect in more traditional coffee houses.
“It looks like they really don’t want us to come in,” said my wife, and I agreed. Cold and sterile came to mind.
We peeked inside the Starbucks across the street, but all the seats and chairs were filled. So popular was it was this mid-afternoon that we decided to return to the local place and give it a try. After all, I reasoned, we have each other. Do our surroundings really matter? (You come to recognize what’s enduring and fulfilling versus the fleeting and unsatisfying. Your wife is your best friend and you relish your time together.)
When we walked in, we were greeted by the type of funereal silence that always makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious. I almost turned around and walked out. Music played softly, and the energy level was low or nonexistent. If you speak, you appear foolish. Intimidating sums up the experience so far.
At first I thought maybe this is the kind of place where you get your coffee to go – so paltry was the available seating. But no, there were a few customers, occupying a long table with high stools in the back.
The clerk was cheerful in a quirky way, although I felt as if she was thinking “these people don’t know or appreciate our sophisticated blends of coffee and tea. Watch the guy order a plain drip coffee.” Which I did, with room for milk. I have no pretension about these things and refuse to order something overly gilded or contrived just to fit in with the crowd. I think my wife ordered an iced chai tea.
My wife noticed the barista, who didn’t crack a smile the entire time. Made several coffees before she poured the iced tea. (I mean, all she had to do was pour the tea. Simple.) I usually don’t let the attitudes of others – especially strangers – affect my mood, but ms. barista’s vibe was palpable. It cast a pall over the place. Sulk much?
My coffee was good, but not worth the four bucks I paid for it. I guess when we overpay for the coffee we are paying for the privilege of sitting in a coffee house for hours, sucking up the wi-fi.
About the wi-fi. We opened our laptops, searched for available networks and found they were all encrypted. I asked the clerk if they have a wi-fi network. “No, we don’t,” she replied, probably sick of answering the question for the 60th time that day, displaying little compassion. No apologies. The whole premise of this coffee format is “unapologetic.”
As Americans, don’t we have the right to free wi-fi?
“That’s okay,” I said to my wife. “We can do other things.” And she showed me the photos from her writer’s retreat in Whitefish, Montana.
I’ve since noticed this no computer policy at other coffee houses. There’s a spot on Pico near Fairfax that segregates the laptop users. Polite little placards adorn each table explaining the policy. At least laptop use is somewhat acceptable. And the place is buzzing with energy, unlike the aforementioned tomb near our apartment.
We stayed for about 45 minutes, not sucking up their wi-fi but sucking up the oxygen in the room and taking up space. I guess I got my $4 worth. And don’t bother asking for a cup to go. No paper is consumed here.
This is a classic coffee experience, accentuated by large, white porcelain mugs.
Maybe this is a new model, I thought. High-concept coffee. The anti-Starbucks. I’m clearly in the minority because most of the Yelp reviews were gushing. Do these people derive some perverse satisfaction from being surrounded by smugness and sterility?
It led me to revisit a question I’ve always pondered about the attitudes of the help and the clientele. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Does the help turn hostile from dealing with arrogant clients all day, or do clients become arrogant from being waited on by hostile help?
So many questions, which I think I’ll consider as I sip my $1.95 grande at Coffee Bean.