Yep, this has been going on for a while. But here it goes for those who have been distracted: coffee shops are becoming places to work and study as much as places to take a break.
My daughter and I usually go to a Starbucks in the Kendall area of Greater Miami for an after-school snack.This particular Starbucks has three main areas, and at least one if not two or even all three of them used to be wide open, so we could choose which one we'd want to populate.
Lately, what we find is that territory has been marked before we get there. We'll see laptop users on both ends of the southern section, where most tables are concentrated. To seat in that section we have to negotiate territory in between. In the middle section are the comfy laid-back chairs grouped living-room style around smaller, knee-high coffee tables. More often than not, one of these has been staked by an open laptop, its owner training or selling something to another person in the adjoining chair. So most often we end up at the four-stool counter, which is usually clear as is the lone table by the north window.
When Starbucks is out of bagels, we go over to Panera Bread, in the same shopping center. A much larger place, we have greater choice of where to sit. But on last count on a recent weekday afternoon, laptop users accounted for nearly half the people in there. On weekend mornings I usually run into John, whose name I know after he once asked me to please watch his laptop while he went to get something in his car. John, I found out, is finishing a book on how he picked up the pieces and found inspiration after losing his business. Laptop at his fingers and cell phone on his ear, I'd say all the editorial changes in his book have been brewed at Panera.
For a while now urban planners have advocated for the creation of so-called "third places", meaning places that are neither home, which are "first places", or work, which are "second places". Third places are public places where people gather informally and voluntarily, interact at their volition, and experience the sharing of space with others in their community. (Google "third places" and you'll find all kinds of interesting analysis of their role in cities and non-cities.) With their welcoming designs, chains like Starbucks, Panera, Barnes & Noble as well as independent coffee bars have filled the void for such third places in many of our cities and suburbs. Not long ago at a different Starbucks, where I stopped for a coffee before a work-related meeting nearby, I ran into a three fellow high school alumni who had convened a meeting there to plan their next class reunion.
That the on-line community is now portable in the form of a laptop has added one more function to these third-place stand-ins. Originally conceived to foster relaxation so as to encourage consumption, they are now harboring a greater share of goal-directed activity as well. If Starbucks was once credited with giving people not only gourmet coffee but also 15 minutes of their own time in the form of a break, more people are choosing this relaxed atmosphere to pursue focused activity. (We'll we evern learn or want to just do nothing?)
Some say that what has followed the laptop-with-caffeine trend is a laptop backlash, meaning some coffee places are now frowing on or downright rejecting customers with laptops, especially those who camp for hours with a single $2 coffee cup. A recent New York Times article is all over this counter-trend: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/dining/25coffee.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1
But given that it was only last month (July) when Starbucks began offering free Wi-Fi in all its stores, I think we'll be sharing more coffee-break space with lighted screens before we start sharing less. And it's not only laptop users who are bringing work to the coffee shop. Not infrequently I'll see someone with a three-ring binder jotting down notes from a textbook.
For my part, when I go for a cup of coffee by myself at one of these places, I bring a book, which I usually don't read, instead staring out the window or looking around the place, just letting my mind wonder while inhaling the magical aroma of fresh coffee. I have no problem with doing nothing. Somebody has to.