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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

July 7, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Wi-Fi coffee shop etiquette: Are you a customer or a moocher?

I walked into Trabant Coffee in the University District, bought a chocolate chip cookie, got the Wi-Fi password in the jar by the register and tried to sign on.

Care for coffee with that Wi-Fi? (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Then I tried again. And again. And again. I asked the barista for help. I asked other customers. Tap, tap. Click, click. For some reason, it wasn’t happening.

I looked at my cookie, still in its wax paper pouch: fatty, sugary and entirely unnecessary.

Well, drat. 

We don’t come out and say it, but to many of us mobile workers of Seattle, Wi-Fi isn’t a perk of going to a coffee shop or even an expectation. A lot of the time, it’s the whole point.

Whether that’s unfortunate or just a consequence of modern life depends on your perspective. Either way, cafe-lounging Wi-Fi workers are as Seattle as tossed fish, and usually just as celebrated.

Unless, of course, they stink.

“Some people come in as customers, and some people come in as users,” said Dow Lucurell, owner of Seattle coffee chain Uptown Espresso. “The perception is that it’s their right. Not just the WiFi, but that they can use it as much as they want.”

Known for its roomy cafes, ample table space and those famously fast connection speeds at its Belltown location, Uptown Espresso was voted Geekiest Coffee Shop at this year’s Seattle 2.0 Awards — and deserved it.

Laptop loungers make up a big chunk of Uptown’s customer base. Despite his nostalgia for a more social time, Lucurell appreciates every one.

Except those sneaky “space abusers.”

Picture this: A woman finishes her work, packs up her dry Uptown coffee cup along with her laptop and leaves. The next morning, she comes in, brings out the laptop, brings out the cup and settles in for another day.

She couldn’t have bought a cookie?

“I told her, ‘Leave and never come into our stores again,'” Lucurell said. “She premeditated how she could spend time and not pay anything!

How much you should pay a coffee shop in purchased goods for the use of its Wi-Fi is a debate even among cafe owners and courteous customers. Andrew Woods, creator of Wi-Fi coffee shop tracker, says $4 to $5 every 3 hours is enough. Lucurell thinks $3 every two hours should do it. And barista instructor and coffee consultant Cole McBride thinks no less than one new item per hour buys peace of mind for a local mobile worker.

I know Seattleites who think they should pay to use a coffee shop’s Wi-Fi like they should pay to walk the aisles at Target. I won’t name names, but you know who you are. And come on: Really?

Of course, there’s more than one way to be a plugged-in, tuned-out jerk. Seattleites have seen it all: Extended video play. Blaring music. Loud Skype calls. All, of course, without headphones.

“Seriously? You don’t see how that affects others’ concentration?” Seattleite Mike Barbre wrote on Facebook.

But wait, there’s more: Plug-hogging monitor and speaker set-ups. Work sprawl that takes half a conference table. Game play that takes half a shop’s bandwidth. Smartphones that won’t stop beeping, blaring, twitching. And that old standby — porn.

Though Lucurell didn’t always want Wi-Fi dampening the social vibe of his shops, he now thinks it “foolish” to start a coffee shop without it. But a couple local spots — call them Seattle’s un-geekiest coffee shops — go Wi-Fi-free and survive. Lighthouse Coffee in Fremont and Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square are notable examples.

Jason Simon is glad they’re around.

After a couple years working from Wi-Fi shops like Trabant and Pioneer Square’s Zeitgeist Coffee, Simon got sick of the silence. In mid-2010, at the urging of friend Joe McCarthy, he designed, ordered and began to wear T-shirts that read, “Hello, my name is Jason. Tap me on the shoulder if you’d like to chat.”

He wore them on the bus, on the street, and of course, in coffee shops. The people he met inspired him to keep a chronicle of his interactions — Caffeinated Conversations — and an associated Flickr group. And, eventually, he left the tight-lipped cafe space to work from a space actually meant for work.

Simon is less concerned with the do’s and don’ts of WiFi citizenry. If he has one piece of advice for mobile workers,  it’s “pay attention.”

“So much of our culture is pulling us away from being where we are, from being present,” he said. “I think that’s what happens in coffee shops.”

Where laptops and smartphones are concerned, I think he’s mostly right.

At Trabant, I picked up my cookie and — painfully — put down my smartphone. The barista was laughing with a woman who’d just come in. In the back, two men debated something. Outside, past the tall windows, students took in a what was turning out to be a beautiful sunny day.

I packed up and joined them.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or subscribe to her on Facebook.

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