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Leah McLaren

Where did café culture go? Add to ...

There's a battle brewing in my erstwhile Toronto neighbourhood, which I revisited on a recent trip home from my base in England. And I literally mean brewing - in the organic, fair-trade, slow-roasted Colombian sense.

It's no secret that urbanites everywhere like their coffee. It propels us to work, fuels social interaction during the day and occasionally keeps us up at night. So perhaps it's no surprise that the past few years have seen an explosion in the number of coffee houses in cities like Toronto. I'm not talking about the Starbucks invasion of neighbourhoods across the continent, but independent, brand-free cafés, the sort of places that are furnished with carefully selected thrift-shop finds, decorated by local artists and frequented by cardigan-wearing grad students and graphic designers who like their double iced frappuccinos large and their wireless on the house.

Sounds like a slice of modern urban paradise, doesn't it? All those freelance hipsters lounging around in vintage corduroys, sipping lavender chai tea and nibbling on wheat-free scones while uploading photos of last night's jam session onto Facebook. Seriously, dudes, what could be cooler?

Well, therein lies the problem. Unlike in, say, Vienna, where café-going typically involves heated intellectual debates over endless cups of Kaffee mit Schlag , the "third wave" coffee houses in Canada's largest city are attracting an increasing number of people who colonize them as work spaces. Call them home offices away from home, cafés cum study carrels. Ostensibly, they are public spaces, but they feel private sector.

Of course, Toronto isn't Vienna, but a growing number of café owners and old-school coffee lovers there are nonetheless resisting the MacBook-toting crowd. Their aim? To reclaim the once-sociable culture of the café in a society that worships Wi-Fi.

Melanie Janisse opened her café, Zoots, just over a year ago in Toronto's west end. In addition to serving traditional French-roasted grinds and home-baked brioche, she provided patrons with free Internet service and computer outlets. Customers came in droves. But soon she noticed something disconcerting.

"As more people plugged in, the energy of the café began to sink," she says. "People would turn up, buy a $2 tea, hunker down and sit there for five or six hours not buying anything or talking to anyone. It really started to bug me."

So Janisse covered over the power outlets with duct tape.

The move didn't win her much affection from laptop-addicted locals, a few of whom tried to peel back the tape, picked public fights when they were asked not to and complained bitterly about the café in the blogosphere. As they saw it, Janisse's no-plug-in policy discriminated against students and writers.

But according to Janisse, it was also a key to her ultimate success. "We're packed all the time now," she says. "People take the board games out of the drawers, they play chess, they write in notebooks. They talk about art. It's great. I'm providing an environment for people who want to breathe air, not a haven for some jerk in skinny jeans who wants to slouch over his e-mail all day."

In spite of Janisse's strong words, she is actually relatively neutral in the wireless war gripping the city's café culture. While Zoots still allows people to surf as long as their battery permits, other popular indie outfits like Manic Coffee, b Espresso Bar and Sam James Coffee Bar don't provide wireless in an effort to encourage, as one Manic employee put it, "the enjoyment of loving coffee."

It's no wonder. Not only does wireless encourage café patrons to pay more attention to their screens than the people around them, it doesn't do much for business. David Ginsberg, the owner of White Squirrel Coffee Shop on Toronto's Queen Street West, says that providing Wi-Fi, as he does, is basically a loss leader. "The seats don't generate any revenue. The business is all in the takeout. But 90 per cent of people who come in to sit down have a laptop. Why fight it?"

While free wireless might seem like a democratic perk of urban gentrification in the electronic age, critics regard it as a sign of our fragmented, over-mediated, workaholic culture.

Take my friend John, who, out of fear of inspiring a local java fatwa against him, doesn't want his real name used. Although he is a sophisticated, self-employed urbanite, John prefers, when it comes to coffee breaks, to kick it old school. Unlike so many people today, John actually goes to his local café in order to relax, chat and drink coffee. For him, the espresso bar is a place to forget about work rather than focus on it.

"I go in and I want to clear my head [but]there's all these people working on computers. It's like a library. You feel like you have to tiptoe around. If you have a conversation, people glare at you. Last time I was in I saw a friend of mine and he was wearing earplugs. I wasn't sure if I should talk to him or not. In a café!"

John says that the groovy new cafés, with their sombre, study-hall atmosphere, give him anxiety attacks. He now prefers cafés "run by old Italian guys" because at least these places encourage what he calls "real-life social networking."

While I have been known to avail myself of free wireless in indie cafés from time to time, I see John's point. When we begin to treat cafés and eateries like technology-operation centres, our culture loses something important: the public meeting space.

So from now on, I'm leaving my laptop at home and taking a book to read with my organic double soy latte.

But that won't stop proprietors like Ginsberg from giving the rest of the people what they want. "I'm not running a coffee house in Greenwich Village in the sixties," he shrugs. "This is 2010. People want to be on their computers. What are you going to do?"

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