“no laptops allowed”

I walked by a neighborhood coffee shop on the Upper East Side the other day, and saw a “No Laptops Allowed” sign. For a moment, I felt chills, and just then, I realized that I was staring future in the face.

What does it tell you when a neighborhood coffee shop doesn’t allow laptops? — that their users tend to buy one drink (anywhere between $2-6) and stay for hours. That was certainly the case at alt.coffee in the East Village, until they decided to plug all of their electrical outlets shut, citing “insurance” concerns. Working on a laptop at a cafe combines at least three important life activities into one: caffeine consumption, people-watching, and work. With free wifi, the cost of that $6 latte is practically tax deductible, and getting work done actually feels like a vacation, not to mention that, while hooked into the internet, you can read more magazines, and hear more amazing music, than you could ever try to in your lifetime, almost without cost..

And yet, that model is increasingly becoming unsustainable for the coffee-shop owners. Some start charging for internet services (like Starbucks); others get rid of the internet entirely, others turn up the music so loud that you can’t think… Other coffee shops simply close, or re-open “with a new concept”. My neighborhood coffee shop on the Upper West Side (the old Columbus Bakery) re-opened with such a new concept, as a marriage of “Pinch” and “S’mac” – a pizzeria and a mac-n-cheese joint…

I tried at length to write a post about how musicians are similar to coffee-shop owners, how we all seek an intimate connection with their listeners and customers. But on closer examination, that comparison fails – the upfront hard costs of starting and running a coffee shop cannot compare with the fairly negligible costs of making music. Where the coffee-shops are trying to monetize their tables by shooing away laptop-laden cyborg freeloaders or asking for a fee, we try to woo them with free downloads, videos, and podcasts — we *hope* they will monetize one day, and celebrate each of their purchases as we would the first steps of a child.

It’s great to live in hope, in faith, in innocence — just wish that they still lived in a coffee shop.

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