A bit of history from the Hartford Historical Society:
Built in 1934 as a WPA Project, this building has seen life as a post office, Vermont District Court and as a privately owned office building. Located at the northeast corner of South Main and Gates Street, it is a Neo-Classical Revival-style brick building with a round, arched opening and the inscription “United States Post Office” on its front. The first post office in White River Junction opened in 1849 after the town became a major railhead and was located at or near the train depot. It moved in 1890 to the Gates Block and subsequently relocated to this building in 1934. It was replaced by a new distribution center, built outside the historic district in 1964.
A coffee shop. A nice place to work, right? Or socializing?
In October, Preservation in Pink discussed the Coffee Shop Conundrum: coffee shop atmosphere and aesthetics, the cost of a cup of coffee, how much to spend in a small business, and how long to stay. Do you have coffee shop guilt? How can a coffee shop be the best atmosphere, the most inviting, and still make a profit?
You might have seen the recent NPR story on August First, a coffee shop/cafe in Burlington, Vermont that has banned screens (laptops and tablets) as of March 31, 2014. Why? Customers were squatting, staying too long and the business was losing money. Buying a few cups of coffee for a few hours was just not cutting it for profits. Additionally, when all of the tables are always full with people and laptops, it does not create the community feel that August First wanted. Rather than being social and neighborly, people were setting up shop with more space than needed and not leaving. The tables were not turning over. So August First made a bold move. Two years ago they cut the free wifi, and this year they banned screens (smartphones are allowed). The result? Sales have increased, even with people’s complaining.
While banning screens sounds crazy, you can probably understand August First’s point-of-view. Haven’t you ever walked into a cafe where the tables were all full, some with one person taking up a table for four? That isn’t fair to anyone.
If you read the comments on the NPR articles (hundreds) you’ll see that there are many issues at hand:
- Customers squatting at tables cuts down in revenues because tables do not turn over;
- Tables that do not turn over will discourage people from returning because they expect to not be able to find a table;
- What sort of atmosphere are the business trying to create?;
- Cafes are not meant to be alternate offices for freelancers (although I’m sure we’ve all wished about that!);
- Is there more of an issue for small business owners than chains such as Starbucks or Barnes & Noble?
The first two are easy to comprehend. Customers spending a few hours and drinking two cups of coffee, for example, will not create as much business as a group of people drinking a cup of coffee or eating a meal. Customers taking up more than one chair and space for one person, prevent more customers from choosing to drink/dine in this cafe.
Yet, some businesses might want the creative writing/academic/business crowd to settle in for a while and appreciate the space. Some people crave working in environments where you are allowed to drink coffee (as in, not the library) and hear the hum of everyday life around you while you work. As discussed in Coffee Shop Conundrum, Starbucks is not an environment where you’d want to say a while (in my opinion). A local, cozy, friendly coffee shop is. At that point, the issue becomes about respect and etiquette, issues often overlooked when screens are in front of our faces. Do not use the coffee shop as your office and spend enough money when you are there. However, what is the appropriate amount of money?
The issue of coffee shop space diverges into credit card v. cash purchases and the evolving nature of how we communicate, interact, and work.
Are there solutions? Well, for those who do not understand that a coffee shop is not an office, they should consider collaborative/co-working office space: renting a desk in an office with other freelancers. If you find the right space, you’ll find your ideal coffee shop/work atmosphere. Even the small city of Montpelier, Vermont has such a space – Local 64. Look around in your city.
What about a different approach? How about a pay-as-you-go space? A cafe in the U.K. and one in Buenos Aires serve as the examples. You pay for the amount of time that you’re in the cafe, not for anything else. It hearkens back to the days of the internet cafe, when you were paying for internet. It’s another version of the co-working space.
And then there are variations. Some coffee shops give you a code when you place an order. Once you run out of internet time, you have to buy something else to get additional time. Other places request that you limit your time and table space during busy hours. Perhaps creating a screen section would work.
Of course, each business can do what is best for its business and create the environment it would like. As we become more mobile and screen-attached, small businesses will have to be creative and find solutions to keep up their profits. Good job to August First for being braving and finding what works for them. Not to mention, the food is delicious, and August First is located in a historic building.
What do you think? Are there other issues? Does your favorite coffee shop have wifi? Any other solutions? What’s the balance?
Following up with Where Are the Running Preservationists?: It’s nice to know you fellow running-preservationists are out there! Thanks for speaking up, including those of you on Twitter. Check out the fun responses below.
Bottom line, you’re out there. And we’ll have to meet up at conferences to go running and exploring. However, not everyone is a runner. (Or some of you are, but are hesitant to admit it, see comments). This leads me to ask:
What is your favorite mode of transportation for exploring? Foot? Bicycle? Horse & carriage? Trolley? Car? I’d love to know. John Stilgoe, author of Outside Lies Magic, encourages everyone to walk or bike, because it enables to observe elements of the built and cultural landscape that we’d never see otherwise. Of course, certain modes are more fitting than other, depending on where you are and what you aim to do. When would you bike or drive?
I’d take a bike around a city so I can stop where I please, but still carry water, my bag, camera, and other essentials. Biking was the best way to see Minneapolis. I’d drive in rural areas because I don’t like to bike on roads with narrow shoulders. And there is the appeal of the open road. I’d take a trolley in a big city for the experience. In New York City, one of my favorite modes is the elevated train because you see cornices and rooftops and life from an entirely new perspective. What else. Where are you going next and how will you explore?