King of the Coffee Shop
May 10, 2012

King Of The Coffee Shop

Michael Harper for

Thoughts on coffee shop etiquette from a former barista turned writer.

As a writer, I have the privilege of being able to work from nearly anywhere. With a strong Wi-Fi signal at my back and a reliable electrical outlet to tether to, the world is my ocean, and I intend to sail it to completion.

Like most of you, I have both requirements in my house. I also have an ever-growing collection of vinyl to distract me, a cat to inflict physical harm to my person and my computer and the siren song of my warm, soft bed to steer me off a productive course.

While I can usually get some work done there, I often opt to walk a block away to the nearest home of the Green-Aproned Baristas (you might call it Starbucks) to complete my work.

Full disclosure: Until recently, I too was one of these Baristas, marker and milk stains creating a crude and smelly Pangea on my apron, the years of serving lattes permanently staining my hands with the smell of roasted beans.

As such, I know some of these baristas at my local chain.

I get here early in the morning, find a place to set up shop (I prefer the corner) and order my coffee.

I´ll usually work for 5-6 hours there, usually buying something from their cold case and getting another fill-up on joe“¦

Unlike my colleague sitting behind me.

I´ve only been coming to this specific chain location for a month or two, and as this isn´t the location where I worked, I´m still learning the natural ebb and flow of this particular store; Which baristas work which hours, when their morning rush begins and ends, and how often someone will come around me to clean my table.

Each store has its own rhythm.

I´ve noticed that this store´s particular rhythm flows around my “colleague.”  Let´s call him “Ed”.

I usually arrive in the morning between 7:30 and 8 AM. Pretty early for a writer, if you ask me.

Ed will usually arrive around the same time.

As I mentioned before, I like to sit in the corner, next to the condiment station.

Ed likes to sit right behind me.

I like to set my bag down in my usual spot before I go order and pay for coffee.

Ed likes to ask for free water, and eat his own energy bars which he brings in himself in a plastic zip-top bag.

It´s a special kind of relationship you have with your coffee shop “co-workers.” You may never speak with one another, yet little bits of flotsam and jetsam information can tell you what your “co-workers” are up to every day. For instance, in getting up to order another refill, I happen to notice Ed´s screen. Ed´s screen has a large and troublesome crack running from the top left corner down to the bottom right edge, separating the screen in at least 3 different areas.

Ed doesn´t seem to mind, as he is always--and I mean ALWAYS–watching some sort of Anime on YouTube.

Ed also wears these bright, electric blue over-the-ear headphones, but always just askew, and I imagine he likes to keep track of what conversations are going on in the shop around him. I´ve also seen Ed wait at the front of the store, laptop, headphones and energy bars stowed safely in his bag, until his spot became available. He didn´t budge, he just sat at the closest table by door and waited for HIS table. There he sat, for more than an hour (I may have been keeping score during the slower points of the day) for his table. No laptop, no energy bars, no free water. Just diligence. Crazy, undisputed diligence.

Of course, there are several differences between Ed and myself. I come here to work and to be productive. Should I ever want to watch anime all day, I´d go put on my ball-chain wallet and dragon emblazoned button up, close all the windows in my house, slam a few guarana-heavy energy drinks and lose myself in the beautiful misery of it all.

But I don´t, because I have a wife. And a cat. And a life.


But what of these Ed-types who do actual work at these coffee shops but don´t buy anything? What should be done with them?

These coffee shops have worked themselves into quite the pickle.

We can´t forget that lounging, staying, visiting and working are all very much bred into the coffee shop culture. Be it the European cafes or the coffee joints of the flower-power days, coffee shops have always been a place for people to gather, discuss, and yes–even work. They put in large, comfy chairs as well as desks and workstations, complete with electrical outlets for our wandering laptops.

But what of those who skip the laptops and bring in 27-inch iMacs?

Surely you´ve seen the pictures floating around the internet of people hauling these aluminum monstrosities to coffee joints, setting up for a long day´s work.

Or a long day of YouTube trolling.

I have, in my many years working for many different coffee shops, seen several instances of people setting up such “workstations,” taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi and a wide open desk.

Let me tell you, the naked baby pictures that look cute in a wallet-sized photo are exponentially more creepy when blown up to nearly 30 inches.

It takes all kinds, I guess.

All this came to mind when I read about a study that has been done over territorial rights in coffee shops. It seems, according to marketing professors Merlyn Griffiths and Mary Gilly, of the Universities of North Carolina and California, respectively, that the simple act of purchasing a single cup of coffee is significant enough to imbue the customer with a sense of entitlement and territorial rights.

After all, they paid their $2.50, they´ve earned the right to sit, damnit.

So what happens when these entitled people see an Ed in their midst?

Well, I think this entire article acts as pretty good proof.

You may even remember a story from just a few months ago about some New York Starbucks stores blocking electrical outlets as a means to discourage those all-day sitters from hogging up precious cafe real estate.

It´s a real issue in some areas, and it´s less of an issue of “who-has-the-right-to-what” and more of an issue of “everyone-should-play-nicely.”

Let´s be honest here“¦for whatever reason, people now expect coffee shops to offer free Wi-Fi; The two go together like my buddy Ed and crappy anime.

I´d even go so far as to say people wouldn´t visit cafes if it weren´t for the internet access.

These cafes are already walking a very fine line, trying to accommodate the remote workers, those having a quick meeting, those gathering with old friends and those simply wanting to catch up on a chapter or two of their new book. We all have reasons to spend an hour or three in a coffee shop. It´s one of the great unifiers in our society, and as we drift along our metropolitan seas, we could always use a brief landing place to get our feet beneath us once more, grab a stiff, caffeinated beverage and firmly plant us back into the reality that other people exist; that we aren´t so special and so different from the rest of the world.

Therefore, we need to treat these gathering places, and subsequently one another, with a little more respect.

That´s why I´m going to offer this set of rough guidelines of appropriate coffee shop behavior. It´s more a code of morals to follow, a way to remember one another´s feelings.

1. You must buy SOMETHING.

Coffee shops sell all sorts of little somethings. Hate coffee? Lot´s of people do, so buy a bottle of water, a cookie, hell even a newspaper. Just give the coffee shop something as a token of your appreciation for letting you sit your butt in their chairs for an hour or two.

2. Refrain from video chats.

Wi-Fi is a shared commodity. Therefore, the more people who use the network, the slower the connection becomes for everyone. It might be hard for you to convince a hoard of others that your 5 hour conversation about nothing in particular is more important than someone who needs to download a time-sensitive document for work. (I´ve actually had to ask a gentleman to leave because he had been video chatting with his buddy for over 6 hours, without buying so much as a .50 cent newspaper. Seriously, people.“¦50 cents is all you need!)

3. Phone calls should be kept private.

This rule applies everywhere the public gathers. You don´t need to broadcast the fact that you are on the phone. We get it. You´re hip. You have one of those new-fangled mobile devices, complete with one of those rootin-tootin ear-thingys. We should all be so lucky.

Seriously, phone calls can either wait or be taken outside. And, for the love of whatever you call holy, get off the phone when placing your order or talking to your barista. The quickest way to get decaf coffee when you didn´t order it is to mouth your order to the person behind the counter because you´re too busy on an Important phone call. If the phone call is so important, then maybe you shouldn´t be buying coffee.

4. Keep an eye out for others.

Is the cafe filling up? Are there people walking around, looking for just one seat? If you´ve been there for more than a few hours, maybe it´s time to move on to the next Wi-Fi oasis. The same applies to outlet space. My Mac, like yours, has a pretty huge brick for a power supply. However, if I bring along my long extension, I can take up less space at the outlet, providing room for others. Treat others as you´d like to be treated.

5. Facebook is not work.

I cannot tell you how many times I´d walk through my cafe and notice that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) was looking at their Facebook pages. Look, I get it. Facebook is the new way we stay in touch and communicate, so checking in a few times an hour isn´t that big of a deal. But keep others in mind. If you aren´t really doing anything other than clicking through pictures of the summer vacation your ex-girlfriend took without you, maybe it´s time to move on. Go home and figure out why your girlfriend wanted to leave you at home while she went to Cabo with your 2 best friends.

(I bet your two best friends aren´t anime fans“¦just a hint)

Likewise, porn is not work.

I have walked past more guys looking at porn–in varying levels of intensity– than I ever thought I would in a public place. This violates  rules 2, 4, 5 and possibly even the spirit of rule 3. You can wait till you get home. If you can´t, there´s got to be a pill somewhere for you to take. No, not the blue one, pervert.

In the end, we should always remember that there are other people in the world other than oursleves, and taking some time to remember and be mindful of them will make our world just a little bit brighter.

As for coffee shops, they´re a great place to meet, to catch up, and even get some work done. However, we could all do a little better if we simply remember that these things, this catching up and this opportunity to work remotely, are privileges, not rights, and as such, we should be grateful to be in such a position.

After all, these coffee shops wouldn´t exist if someone wasn´t throwing some money their way. Your expecting someone else to do it is incredibly rude and unkind.

Remember, next time you´re floating along the sea of e-commerce, basic land laws apply. Do unto others, there´s no such thing as a free lunch, and you always get what you pay for. If you buy a $2.50 cup of coffee, maybe you shouldn´t expect to be crowned king of the cafe or have impromptu parades thrown in your honor with streamers and champagne and cheerleaders.

Now if you´ll excuse me, Ed has surprised us all with a particularly odorous sandwich from his bag o´ tricks, and I believe I´ve got a lovely adult beverage waiting for me at home.