It's too early to say whether it's a trend, but Victrola Coffee & Art in Seattle shuts down its free Wi-Fi on Saturday and Sunday: I spoke to co-owner and co-founder Jen Strongin today after a colleague tipped me to the fact that this lovely, single-shop coffee establishment had decided to experiment with taking back its culture by turning off the Wi-Fi juice on weekends.
Strongin said that the five-year-old cafe added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago. It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year "we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe." Before Wi-Fi, "People talked to each other, strangers met each other," she said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. "Those people co-existed with people having conversations," said Strongin.
But "over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more," she said. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers. Many laptop users occupy two or more seats by themselves, as well. Victrola isn't on the way to anywhere; it's in the middle of a vibrant stretch of shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill's 15th Ave. It's exactly the kind of place that you want to sit down in, not just breeze through.
Worse than just the sheer number of laptop users, Strongin noted, is that many of these patrons will camp six to eight hours--and not buy anything. This seemed astounding to me, but she said that it was typical, not unusual. The staff doesn't want to have to enforce the cafe's unspoken policy of making a purchase to use the space (and the Wi-Fi), and on the occasions that they approach a non-buyer about a purchase asking, "Can I get you a beverage?" the squatter often becomes defensive, explains they've bought a lot in the past or just the day before.
"It's just really really difficult. We've had so many heated debates about it. We want people to linger at the cafe. We're not a fast-food coffeeshop. We want people to feel comfortable staying here as long as they please," Strongin said.
They've gone two weekends with no Wi-Fi, and so far, they're pleased with the results. The staff "loves it," she said, and regular customers are "coming up to us and thanking us." They have received a few nasty emails. But Strongin said that last Sunday was one of the best revenue days they've had on the weekends in a while. "It was kind of a bold move."
Strongin says that Victrola isn't interested in charging for Wi-Fi as a tool to limit or moderate use, and still thinks that free Wi-Fi is a great amenity that they can offer their customers at the right time. They have no plans to remove it entirely.
But, she said, "I don't like going into a cafe, any cafe, including my own, and just seeing a sea of laptops and people not interacting."
Update: Tonx, Victrola's roaster, posted his own insider take on the matter. He notes, "A few customers were in painful enough withdrawal that they stayed home, finding time to send email about how upsetting it was. But the overwhelming response was positive."