The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Don’t Sit Down and Stay a While

I knew it. So, last week I griped about the whole working-at-home-vs.-working-around-people thing. And during my travels in search of wireless internet access and the proximity of other people, I’d started to develop a sneaking suspicion that — with more and more people working from locations other than an office — some institutions that offer the lure of wifi also wield a stick to make sure the “road warriors” among us don’t adopt their space as a semi-permanent office space.

Maybe I’m being paranoid. I mean, there are the obvious, reasonable measures that most places take, like logging you off their wifi after you’ve been there a certain amount of time (that’s if it’s free wifi). I can understand wanting to open up a table for a new paying customer when I finished my latte/frappucino/chai tea a couple of hours ago. But I swear there are some more subtle strategies employed. Like the lack of electrical outlets. And electrical outlet is an invitation for someone like me to sit and stay a while, after all. And if there is an outlet available, more than half the time the seat or table nearest it is occupied by someone who’s not using the outlet.

That’s not a problem. After all, people can sit where they want. But I swear there have been times when I’ve seen people sit by the outlets all day. They’re there when I make my first pass, and they’re still there if I pass by a few hours later. I’d swear that the store owners are paying people to sit those outlets, but I know if doesn’t make much sense. But they are taking out the comfy chairs.

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Just a decade ago, the trend in the bookstore industry was to fit nooks and crannies with big chairs for browsing, which, it was hoped, would spur buying. The idea was to recast the bookstore as a community place or an extension of the home. Out with sterile bookstores where customers stood at attention to check out a book; in with warm, sinking chairs where book lovers could be by their lonesome.

But now the availability of so-called “soft” seating – overstuffed chairs and sofas – is on the decline at some bookstores, done in by various complications: homeless squatters, overly enthusiastic young lovers, food trash left behind.

“We were finding people staying for hours and hours and not necessarily buying books,” says Juliana Wood, district marketing manager for the Borders chain. “We obviously hope browsing turns to purchasing, but that’s a chance you take when you offer people a really comfortable setting.”

In recent years, Borders has cut its soft seating by as much as 30 percent. Backless seating – magazine benches, step stools – no longer takes the back seat. Also, given the choice between book space and seating place, books win every time. As Wood says, “You can’t sell a chair.”

Hey, I resemble that remark. OK. I at least buy something to drink, in order to justify taking up a table, even if its just a bottle of water. And I understand that business is business, but if choice is one between being a hermit in my home office or being a nomad wandering from wifi-wateringhole to wifi-wateringhole, what’s a guy to do?

A guy needs what Mike over at Web Worker Daily calls “a Third Place.”

The “third place,” of course, is the spot where we go that isn’t home or work when we want to hang out and feel connected with other people. For some of us this is a shifty concept, of course: if you do web work at home, and socialize exclusively on Twitter and IRC, do you have three places or just one?

…As web workers, we tend to have less opportunity to socialize with others at work, so you’d think we would put more energy into finding vibrant and engaging third places to fill that side of our lives. Is there anything to that thought? Do you have some real-life third place where you hang out, whether a neighborhood bar or a church?

Lately, my third place is the public library. Both Montgomery County public libraries and D.C. public libraries offer free wifi. Montgomery County libraries limit you to 3 hours of wifi use per day, and D.C. asks you to move on after a while too. So these days my routine is to start out at home in the mornings, have lunch, and then head out to a library. (I discovered one that’s laptop-friendly! It has tables that have pop-up outlets in the tabletops!), and then spend an hour or so at a coffee shop before heading home.

But even the libraries are not to keen on folks making themselves at home.

Public libraries – another way station for readers – face similar seating issues. Libraries are designed to be inviting – but again, the challenge is not to get people too comfortable.

“It’s a topic we wrestle with in every project,” says David Michaels, an Arizona-based interior designer who most recently worked on Enoch Pratt’s Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown. Unlike the sparse soft seating at the main library, the new city branch on Eastern Avenue is furnished with habitable chairs.

“A public library should be every man’s country club,” he says.

It’s kind of odd, really, these institutions dealing with homeless people and professionals taking up space. But when you think about those are two classes of people — particularly given the growing ranks of independent workers, web workers, etc. — who don’t have any place where they belong. I mean, yes, I have a home I can work out of, but there’s the isoation factor. and if I go out for lunch with someone, I either have to go back home or find somewhere to work. Because I don’t have an office to go to other than my home office, and there’s nobody there.

I’m finding ways to balance it out. But articles like this one make me think it’s going to be an ongoing battle.

One Comment

  1. I’m a fan of Panera’s, myself. Better food than Starbucks, and doesn’t tempt me to spend money as much as a bookstore.

    One other thought is that it pays to carry a small outlet splitter so you can share if someone else gets there first.