Mathew Klickstein
Mathew Klickstein

How many times have you gone to a coffee shop, ready to meet up with some old friends or wanting a little peace and quiet to finish your book... only to find a "laptop farm" before you of folks who have been there all day, locked into their computers and looking as though they're not about to go anywhere else?

Conversely, how many times have you been ready to work on your laptop... only to find a coffee shop with two outlets and a shitty Wi-Fi server?

Leysia Palen, associate professor of computer science at CU, suggests that this alleged conflict -- is a coffee shop a social hub/reprieve or is it an office? -- is not a conflict at all. Instead, Palen says, this division is merely part of a growing specialization process that should be embraced. Some coffee shops will be available for one use, some for another.

According to Bryant Simon, author of "Everything but the Coffee," it's only been within the last 15 years that coffee shops have become so important to the creative economic sector. Before the '90s, Simon says, libraries or offices took the place of what has become the modern working space in America today: the Wi-Fi-capable café.

Simon suggests that recent advances in hardware (namely portability) have colluded with a "government retreat" in the cutting of taxes for schools, libraries and other community centers, leading to the "repurposing" of the contemporary coffee shop.

Simon spoke with numerous patrons who judiciously weighed the fiscal pros and cons of working out of a local coffee shop. After all, a coffee shop offers space, internet access, clean bathrooms, air conditioning and waste disposal. All for the cost of a few cups of coffee, if that.


More and more firms, looking to cut office rental costs of their own, are offering telecommuting jobs, said Simon.

On the flip side of the equation, Simon learned that coffee shop owners are now starting to impose what Palen calls "natural controls" in order to indirectly encourage one kind of coffee shop usage over another. This can mean everything from not offering enough outlets ("Get off your damn computer and interact!") to Starbucks' practice of designing its furniture/decor in such a way as to promote the solo patron experience ("Don't worry about being interrupted by the guy next to you!").

Rob Fitzgerald, manager of Espresso Roma, refuses to update his shop's Wi-Fi server or to install electric outlets on his back patio area, hoping that this will discourage laptop use without directly sending away customers.

Vic's owner Mike Hilliker says the reason he opened a coffee shop in the first place was to have a place for social gathering. "I don't have any interest in a library setting with computers everywhere."

According to Simon, Hilliker might be too late. And Palen may be too optimistic in her view that we can look forward to a future that will support both branches of coffee shops.

"In a place like Boulder," Simon said, "you have enough coffee shops where owners can turn off their Wi-Fi if they want. But, eventually it won't matter anyway. Just think about what's happening with smart phones and iPads."