Device free

One of the things in Tuff City i enjoy (i know 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 rarely without a sense of guilt. Java joints make their money off turnover, and patrons flipping through emails and browser tabs might be a 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.

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Tuff Beans Coffee House — arguably the Tofino tourist’s go-to café because of its highly visible downtown location (and reliable wifi) — has since last summer displayed (above) a discreet plea for the phone-and-laptop crowd to use cornerstone-cafe-victoria-share-notice-20160728-gbleetheir “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 (right) a prolix, 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 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 offline 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.

Montreal ‘coffices’ emerge to meet needs of self-employed
New businesses blend coffee shop, office to offer freelancers more flexibility [CBC]

Predictably, entrepreneurs are coming up with new strategies to meet the situation. The CBC article above (from last March) describes several Montreal 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? I, for one, will be first in line when someone tries it.


WRITER: Tofitian greg blee is a longtime cultural observer and sometime commentator. He also sits on Tofino council, representing (he says) the marginalized and under-housed.