Those Dastardly Coffee Campers

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People in the coffee business call them campers. They are the individuals who spend hours working on their computer after purchasing a small cup of coffee. When a place gets crowded and other people need seats they lower their heads and burrow into those computers like turtles at the shoreline.

The New York Times has published two articles about this threat to civil life, and the LA Times has weighed in with its own report.

Computer users annoy people more than those disappearing folks who read the newspaper in its entirety with a proofreader's obsessiveness. I think in part the computer users prompt anxiety about the Internet and the effects it may be having on all of us.

If there was one thing my friends all agreed upon, it was that some of our customers were spending too much time in the store.

When we first started selling espresso drinks at our store in Central Square, Cambridge, near MIT, my friends would immediately notice the campers. "That guy is here every day." "That person has been here since before lunchtime and I don't think he even bought a second cup of coffee." If there was one thing they all agreed upon, it was that some of our customers were spending too much time in the store.

At the time I had a different view. I would describe the campers as "volunteers who have agreed to be extras in the imaginary movie we are all making." Most people come in, buy a cup of coffee, and leave shortly for work or to catch a bus or subway. But the campers who were already settled in their seats suggested other daytime possibilities. I imagined that the industrious and dutiful customers would pause for a moment and think, "Wouldn't it be nice to write my college roommate from Minnesota or finish reading that story in The New Yorker? " After the briefest of sighs they would leave for the workaday world. "And besides," I would say, "Americans aren't as rude as French people, who will spend a day at a cafe after securing their seat with a small purchase. When a place gets busy and people need to sit, Americans will share." Now I think that's less true. Either computers are truly all-absorbing or people just pretend not to notice others who want to sit for a moment. Now at Toscanini's, we turn off the Internet during our busy weekend breakfasts, and at other times I will say to customers that the store is too busy for them to continue their solitary, monkish work.

I don't understand why people would work so intensely in a noisy environment. My mother said people work best in a quiet place, free of distractions. One day I told a table of industrious students, "I have to ask you not to use your computers so that others can sit." I pointed to a big sign that said the same thing. "Don't worry," I said brightly, "We have talked to people at MIT and they have created something they call a library." All the other customers laughed—but none of the people who were working.

Lamont Library at Harvard contains a cafe with what many people think is bad coffee. The library is very good with books. I think it was guerrilla theatre when someone recently brought his desktop computer to a cafe. Some campers take up three or even four seats, with coats and book bags and piles of documents on every surface.

Years ago I read that the historian Jonathan Spence wrote much of his book The Gate of Heavenly Peace in Naples Pizzeria in New Haven. I liked the book and the pizzeria and thought that was cool. At Toscanini's people have created video games and started companies and completed theses. I'm happy all those things happened here.

Toscanini's is trying to strike a balance for all these customers and friends, one that is probably typical of college-town cafes. One idea is that we stay open 24 hours a day during finals. This summer I visited a small cafe in Farmington, Maine, which is also a college town. They had a notice that said, "We are not an office. If you need to recharge your computer you've probably been here too long."

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Gus Rancatore is the co-founder of Toscanini, the Cambridge-based shop that The New York Times said makes "the best ice cream in the world." Learn more at www.tosci.com.

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