Wi-Fi Vampires

photo by McClatchey News Service

 

It was, says Lisa Berg, a "humbling" note to write.

The single sheet of paper hangs inside the restroom at her coffee shop, Blue Moon Coffee Cafe, and describes her plight. The place is nearly always full — in that there’s nowhere for walk-ins to sit — and people are reading, writing, typing away. But there’s often only one customer to a table. Few people are talking, and those who do are shushed. Worse, patrons will order a single drink and sit for hours, occupying a four-top spread with computer, books, legal pads, and pens. Business is down more than 30 percent. For the first time since she opened the shop in 1994, Berg is afraid she might have to close.

"This has been happening since last summer," says Berg. "We look out and the place seems busy. And I love the company and love our customers and I’m grateful. But what we notice is that even though it’s full and people will come in and leave because there’s no place to sit, is that people will linger with one cup of tea for three or four or five hours, getting water refills while they do their work. And I don’t think that’s going to work much longer for us."

Granted, Blue Moon and other Lake Street businesses were dealt a blow by the year-and-a-half-long construction project that routed traffic away from their doors. Profits began to flag back then. But though they’ve had Wi-Fi for more than three years, Berg has noticed a shift recently. In short, people are treating her coffee shop — and others, according to her friends who own similar places — like a public facility where they can get a free Internet connection, ice water, and bathroom facilities.

"We’ve always had lots of writers and students and teachers," Berg says. "That’s the coffeehouse culture. But the atmosphere used to be about conversation and it had that sort of vibrancy. Now that the shift is to study hall, it’s so quiet. People are tippy-tapping on their computers and I want to accommodate that but I also want to have people be mindful that this is a business, not a library."

Several times lately, she’s had to mediate when a customer who was working became irritated because there were children gabbling and playing nearby. She’s even watched people come in with a bag lunch and bottles of their own drinks, claim a table, and sit for an afternoon buying absolutely nothing.

Friends have told her to shut down the Wi-Fi when freeloaders park and use it. Other coffeehouse owners use this method, whispering to their regular, paying customers that the outage is temporary but leaving it off until the vampires pack up their gear and leave.

Berg thought she’d try writing a civilized note, instead. After all, most of the offenders are themselves writers and scholars. A month ago, she says ruefully, this seemed like the best way to get their attention.

Not so.

There was little response to Berg’s plea. A few customers mentioned it and were concerned, she reports. One was offended. But nothing changed. Even people who acknowledged her situation and talked at length about the sad state of the economy did not start buying more. So Berg is faced with a few tough choices: She can raise prices, increase seating, or hang signs — similar to the ones at Coffee News and other high-volume, college-area coffeeshops — insisting people buy something, share tables, and vacate within one hour during peak times.

"I think the solution is to provide more seats and maybe to raise our prices a little, which we haven’t for a couple years," she says. "We serve mostly organic and stuff has gone up but I just hate raising prices because this is a humble neighborhood in a lot of ways and I want to keep Blue Moon accessible to people."

Of course, she admits, it won’t be accessible if it’s gone.

As for the last option — demanding that people buy something and sit for no more than an hour — Berg says for partly selfish reasons, she is unwilling to go that far.

"I want to keep this a place where people can just come be and hang out," she says. "I love seeing people doing their day, whatever that means: reading the paper or writing a dissertation or doing the crossword. I wouldn’t enjoy what I do so much without that kind of thing."