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It’s a problem that coffeehouses everywhere have to deal with: What to do with squatters who camp at tables all day, their laptops locked into the free wifi, as they nurse a cup of Joe and live in some fantasy world where their very presence somehow helps the owners pay the bills. It’s a particularly pressing issue as the economy continues to stall and more folks join the ranks of the unemployed, eager to exploit a shop’s free wifi for their own gain.

Tryst in Adams Morgan believes it has a unique solution. But before we get to that, I wanted to throw the question out to the friends and colleagues and followers on my social networks. Are laptop squatters a problem for you, I wanted to know, and should coffeehouses try to limit surfing hours or enforce a minimum purchase or charge for wifi? Below are some of the responses:

hillrat: People who squat at coffee shops for 3+ hours don’t care, they’re selfishly living off the fat of the land.

Cancemini4: Totally fair [to establish minimum purchases or time limits]. It’s hard enough to turn a profit in a coffeeshop, if people don’t want to pay they should go to the public library.

Sacha: yes! drives me crazy when someone buys a cup of coffee and sits at Tryst for 5 hours. I don’t know how these businesses survive.

Joe: it has nothing to do with “should” and everything to do with “what will best help me pay my bills and taxes”. They own a business and not a charity.

Lou: I’ve been so peeved about this since day 1, esp. when you got the jack ass just sitting there for hours just cruising the damn ‘net at a table for four.

Carol: If people want free Internet access, they can go to their local library (since most library systems in the DC metro area offer free wi-fi). Businesses have every right to charge for wi-fi or impose limits, and if they’re not, they should. By the way, you can write off all job-seeking expenses on your taxes — whether it be a cup of coffee along with those wi-fi charges, or an interview suit or shoes.

Zora: Remember when Borders first went national, and they had comfy chairs all over the store so their customers could sit and browse books? Pretty soon homeless people started camping out in them all day long, and now the chairs are gone. Unintended consequences involving freeloaders will undo the best of intentions, it seems.

Frank:  Bookstores and coffee shops without wi-fi are like sports bars without ESPN. The businesses have to attract customers, and wi-fi helps them do that. If they don’t have any tables open, it’s not where I want to eat (or surf), anyway.

Laura: No, it’s called “Freedom”

Mike: Only if other restaurants start a time clock for how long you have to eat your meal and leave:)

Bobby: i’m inclined to say no. but laptop slackers should have the decency to spring for a cup of coffee.

Deb: Yeah, I feel like a customer is entitled to one hour per paid cup. After awhile, the caffeine jitters would put him in a coma anyway and the laptop would be up for grabs.

Whew, OK, so what is Tryst’s solution? It’s not to set time limits or minimum purchases. It’s not even to charge for wifi. It’s to encourage laptop users to do what cofeehouses were originally intended to do: socialize, not hybernate in cyberspace. According to a release sent to Y&H yesterday, Tryst has recently…

launched its “Don’t Camp Alone” campaign with the goal of encouraging Laptop Users to share their tables with other patrons in the hope of addressing both the social and the economic dimensions of this dilemma. Guests who typically leave after looking but not finding a seat are now offered the option of joining a Laptop User’s table.

According to General Manager Stephanie Lair, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and “Tryst has increased sales” – she says with a smile. “At first, we too viewed them as a threat to our coffeehouse culture and our bottom line, but once we decided to engage them we found to our surprise that they actually want to connect and socialize with others.”

Owner Constantine Stavropoulos could not accept the notion that “discouraging or punishing certain patrons” was the answer or even an acceptable option for a coffeehouse. “Historically, Coffeehouses are the epicenter of social change and cultural movements and laptops are now part of our culture. At Tryst, we see ourselves as pioneers in defining the American Cafe/Coffee Culture and so for us, we don’t see this as a ‘dilemma’, we see it as our mission!” Stavropoulos doesn’t fault or judge other coffeehouses for seeing Laptop Users as a threat, saying “let’s not kid ourselves; the economic environment is scary right now. But our patrons are not the threat!”

The interesting thing is that Tryst, in the same release, doesn’t seem to think this solution alone will solve the issue. They have another “major Tryst intiative” on the horizon, which they won’t reveal yet.

Photo by Daquella manera via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License