Device free

Darwin’s Cafe evolves [photo greg blee]

One of the things in Tuff City i enjoy (i’m not the only one) is sitting in a café, sipping a latte and reading, writing, chatting — or, more often, browsing the web. But it’s rarely without a vague sense of guilt. Java joints make their money off turnover, and hordes of patrons flipping through emails and browser tabs might be one kind of turnover, but it’s not the one the business model is based on.

I don’t feel so guilty if i’m eating breakfast or lunch, or if i’m there with a group for coffee and treats — at least that adds life to a place, which is emphatically not the case with staring into a screen. You walk into a place sometimes and it feels like a morgue, everybody silent and absent, faces bathed in that sick blue glow.

I’m as culpable as the next, hanging for hours at a table with a laptop and a mug of coffee (lately it’s been tea, which is even worse for the gross margin). I do make a point of leaving if the place gets busy, to free up the table for paying customers. But otherwise, like a vulture, i lurk.

So even a small table at Tuff Beans, or Darwin’s Café, or Tofino Sea Kayaking, or Ocean Outfitters (my usual haunts) is something of a guilty pleasure. I love the ambience — indeed, i work best in the anonymous bustle of a café setting. But i’m hardly their ideal customer.

Business-wise, wifi sucks — but it also lures in customers like nothing but free beer. I watch with interest how cafés handle this dilemma.

* * * *

Tuff Beans Coffee House — arguably the Tofino tourist’s go-to café because of its highly visible downtown location (and reliable wifi) — has since mid-summer displayed (above) a discreet plea for the phone-and-laptop crowd to use their “Internet bar” and not take table space away from diners.

A month ago, i stopped at the Cornerstone Cafe in Victoria’s funky Fernwood neighbourhood, where i found (left) a prolix but heartfelt plea for device users to at least share tables, rather than hogging one each.

Last week at Darwin’s Café (Tofino Botanical Gardens), i saw that most of the tables now sport hand-printed signs reading “Device Free Table — thank you.” In other words, these tables are reserved for the enjoyment of coffee, muffins, books, and other people’s company — as used to happen in cafés for centuries before the Internet came along. I sat at a device-free table for an hour, appreciating the range of off-line activities i was “forced” to pursue (below), even as i inwardly yearned to fire up the ol’ laptop and get some work done.

Fortunately Darwin’s sets aside three tables in the corner as a “designated device area,” where patrons are welcome to disappear into their phones or laptops.

The ubiquity of devices in the café setting is growing. Some see this as a result of the newly precarious workplace and “gig culture,” where everyone is a self-employed freelancer, presumably in need of temporary office space for meetings and working.

Predictably, entrepreneurs are coming up with new strategies to meet the situation. A March 2016 CBC article, Montreal ‘coffices’ emerge to meet needs of self-employed, describes several establishments on the “coffice” model — part coffee shop, part office — with lingering and laptops encouraged, even supplemented with printers, fax, meeting booths, and networking with like-minded people. Some charge a modest hourly fee for the privilege.

Is the coffice a model that would work in Tofino? Given our pressure for informal working space, i’m betting on it. When it happens, i’ll be first in line.


GREG BLEE is a keen observer and occasional writer about many things Tofitian. This piece first appeared on gregblee.ca in 2016.

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