Camping Out in Cafés

In a post’s comments, reader Rick writes:

RE: your recent review of Seattle coffeehouses and how nice it is to do work in them: Grr… Jeff, hate to say it, but it’s people like you, i.e. those folks who camp out in Seattle coffee houses all day to do their day jobs or homework, that take up 00% if not all the available seats and ruin it for the rest of us. The decor of our coffee houses is now a sea of laptops surrounded by textbooks and workpapers on all the tables. These selfish ones studiously ignore us regular people, who wander the isles looking for a spare seat or corner of a table to hang out for a while with a cup of joe.

  Dean’s Office B.A. 

  Originally uploaded by Jeff Carlson.

Actually, Rick, I agree with you. There are a lot of people who camp out for hours at a time. I’ve found that I can do maybe up to two hours of work in a coffeeshop before I need to move on, but usually I’ve gone to a cafe as a change of pace, not as a second office.

I’m glad to see that places like Caffe Ladro and Fremont Coffee Company are using a system where you get a code from the counter to get onto their wireless networks, which expires after a set amount of time (usually 1-2 hours). My colleague Glenn Fleishman wrote an article for the New York Times about Victrola when they decided to turn the Wi-Fi off on the weekends.

It’s true that some people will just park at a table, laptop or no, and hang out all day. I don’t know what can be done except to find ways to discourage them (politely) from doing so. It does annoy me when one person is taking up a four-person table with all their crap. But I’m sure they had this problem in the early coffeehouses in England, too.

  1. It’s interest to see where blame gets placed. I think there’s a combination of blame between a subset of people who are willing to violate social norms (i.e., camp out, take up four people’s worth of space for one person, buy very little or nothing from the cafe) and the cafe operator who isn’t willing to set parameters. For instance, signs that say, “Laptop users, please limit yourselves to a seat for one or two, and make room as things get busy” actually serves as enough of both policy and shame to change behavior, from what I’ve heard. But, likewise, if you offer free Wi-Fi and then have five power outlets, all under four-person tables, then you’re going to find the laptop users there.


  2. I can understand where you are coming from but I see another side to this dilema as well. Being a fresh college graduate I can say that the coffee shops in my college town tended to encourage the students to chill out and do some homework or whatever, even if they spent more than 1-2 hrs there. I think it can be a good thing for business, if a place looks busy its most likely because they are producing a good product which ultimatly drives consumers to check it out for themselves. I do agree that the “time limit” signs and “make room” signs will probably make people ashamed and feel unwelcome, however these people will most likely just find a new coffee shop to spend their money at and as a result the business will suffer.


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