Wi-Fried – When coffee shops turn off the Web

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a stream of customers flows into Peregrine Espresso on 14th Street NW. Almost no one stays very long, since nearly all of the dozen seats are filled.

Two twentysomething guys in faded T-shirts and jeans casually chat at one of the tables, while a woman with frizzy gray hair intently edits a sheaf of papers nearby. The few laptops open are running Microsoft Word, not Facebook.

What kind of bullshit is this?

As a freelance journalist who has made a career out of frequenting java joints of every size, this doesn’t seem right. Places like this are supposed to be a haven for people like me who want to get out of the house just so that we feel like we’ve accomplished something.

It’s like there’s something missing here.

Oh, yeah, free Wi-Fi. What was once an integral coffeehouse element is now no longer guaranteed.

“When we signed the lease, it immediately occurred to me that we did not have the space to encourage people to hang out for long periods of time,” says Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen. “It wasn’t appropriate to offer Wi-Fi and end up with a situation where people could never expect to find a seat. It’s hard enough as it is.”

Jensen knows what it’s like to foster that type of environment, since Peregrine’s original Capitol Hill location offers free Wi-Fi, as did its predecessor, Murky Coffee. “There were some things that we didn’t really feel like we wanted to mess with,” he says. “One of those things was offering Wi-Fi.”

After over a decade in the business, Jensen has seen a shift: Coffee shops “went from being more communal places to being second offices for a lot of people,” he says. The squatters linger for long periods, take advantage of power outlets, and sometimes hog tables intended for multiple customers.

Finish reading this story on the Washington City Paper website now.

Illustration by Jandos Rothstein; photo by Darrow Montgomery

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