Laptop free weekends start today at the Actual Cafe. The new coffee shop in the Golden Gate neighborhood is going retro every weekend during the month of February.
In an effort to keep Actual Cafe an actual cafe, owner Sal Bednarz will embark upon a month-long social experiment to create the kind of social atmosphere that existed before wireless internet and mobile computers. Bednarz wants people to step away from their Facebook profiles and connect face-to-face. “It’s important to me to have a place that’s not just about sitting around and studying and surfing the web on a laptop,” said Bednarz.
During these weekends the wireless router will be turned off. Customers using laptops will be kindly reminded about the experiment and asked to put them away. Never fear, laptops will be okay on Monday and the wireless Internet will be crackling through the airwaves.
Bednarz is aware this is a bold stance to take in the current coffee shop culture where people are accustomed to hiding in plain sight behind the glow of their computer screens. Bednarz call these kinds of cafes “wi-fi shacks.”
Coffee shops are also a popular choice for those who can’t afford Internet access at home, and for workers who are keeping cabin fever at bay, like Art Prateepvanich, who lives in the neighborhood. Prateepvanich is a marketer for Yahoo! who was enjoying a drink while tapping away on his laptop. “I fall more under the anti-social aspect,” he said with a bashful grin. “I like being around people, but I don’t necessarily want to be interacting. I actually have work to do.”
Christina Zanfangna, a UCLA PhD student in ethnomusicology, is living in Berkeley while finishing her dissertation. She noticed the cafe while driving down San Pablo. “As a grad student you’re always looking for places to work,” she said. When asked if she comes to a cafe to socialize she said, “I don’t go to cafes to socialize that much. I’d probably go for a walk or to a bar instead.”
But what has become a habit for today’s cafe goers has evolved into the bane of a coffee shop owner’s business. Rows of silent laptops users often unintentionally affect the tone of venues designed for socializing. Sometimes, they do it intentionally with a shush or a stony glare when a nearby conversation gets too loud. “When I walk into those places. I feel alienated. I feel isolated. I don’t feel social. I don’t feel like I want to spend time there, and I know I’m not the only one,” said Bednarz.
Actual Cafe opened its doors on the corner of Alcatraz and San Pablo on January 8, 2010. Bednarz, a Morris County, New Jersey native created the space to bring back a piece of the bohemian Oakland he fell in love with when he first arrived from the east coast. “I came from a place where being a weirdo was frowned upon. Here it was encouraged. So I felt like I fit in,” said Bednarz.
After moving to Oakland Bednarz made jewelry for a living and played percussion in a band. He would hang out in coffee shops with other creative folk. Unfortunately the dot.com boom and the rise of real estate prices drove a lot of those places out of business he said. After a stint as an IT professional, Bednarz was laid off and went backpacking in Central and South America. While on the road he had an epiphany: “There are no chains. I really appreciated the community created around small businesses and local commerce. It made me want to create a similar model when I got back home,” said Bednarz. “I really realized that was one of the things missing from my life today.”
Bednarz lives four blocks away from Actual Cafe in the Golden Gate neighborhood. Before he started the business he often went to Temescal, Rockridge or other neighborhoods to socialize. “I’ve lived in my house for almost ten years. I was really frustrated with the lack of local things to do. Outside of a block or two radius I didn’t know anyone in my neighborhood because there was no place for me to go and meet them,” he said.
With no business degree or previous restaurant experience Bednarz started planning. He reached out to his neighbors known and unknown and sought their help. He posted signs and sent e-mails to the Golden Gate neighborhood listserv. People gladly came out to help build the cafe, he said: they painted, cleaned and helped haul furniture.
“I think all of those things made it feel like a place that was really about a neighborhood,” said Bednarz. “By inviting people in [to participate] it makes it feel like neighborhood where people are contributing. It’s lived in and it’s comfortable.”
Bednarz hopes it won’t stop there. The lounge area has a book and magazine exchange that went from empty to full in two weeks. Bednarz has invited his customers to decorate the bike parking wall with stickers and refrigerator magnets. All of the seating is communal. “It’s so much easier to have a conversation with a stranger when you’re sitting six inches away from them than it is when you’re sitting three feet from them,” he said.
For Bednarz, the laptop free weekend experiment isn’t about taking something away from his customers, but building relationships.
“It’s important for me to be a part of the neighborhood and support the neighborhood I live in,” he said
Actual Cafe isn’t the only Oakland cafe that has come up with a creative way to address customers camping out with laptops. Last year Nomad Cafe located at 6500 Shattuck Avenue covered up most of its outlets. Dani Meyer is a barista and doula who has worked at the Nomad Cafe for four months. “I remember being in coffee shops before there were tons of laptops around. There was a different vibe,” she said.
She remembers when coffee shops were lively places that served many needs. There was more balance. Customers came to read, write poetry, do homework or socialize with friends, she said. Meyer thinks it’s a challenge in this economy for a cafe owner to make a profit without alienating working customers. “Probably about fifty percent of our business here is people that bring in wireless computers,” she said. “We don’t want to tell them. ‘no you’re not welcome,’ of course they are welcome. But we have to strike a balance and make the space available for a multitude of customers.”
Cutting down to one outlet turned out to be okay for Payam Imani, who was a longtime customer before he started working at Nomad Café last August. He and his roommates frequented Nomad Cafe when they didn’t have wireless at home for a spell. Imani is also a student at San Francisco Academy of the Arts, so he would camp out when he had a lot of work to do that required Internet access. “I used to come here for the wi-fi pretty much exclusively,” he said.
Imani noticed right away when the plugs were covered last spring. Unlike other customers who were angered, Imani was empathetic with the cafe and understood why they made the change. He admits it encouraged him to use his one hour of battery life more efficiently. “I was more conservative about when I’d open it. I might get all my stuff in a row first,” he said. “Maybe go back home, charge it up, and come back later in the day.”
So far, the idea of Actual Cafe’s laptop and wireless free weekend experiment has garnered mixed responses from customers.
“Initially I kind of thought it was annoying because I felt like I couldn’t come here to work,” Zanfangna said. She said it is unlikely she will darken Actual Cafe’s door during the laptop free weekends, but she said she gets the concept. “I support the experiment, and the cause of people actually looking off their screens and talking to one another.”
Prateepvanich was dubious at first, but hopes for the best, “I think it’s admirable. I was curious about how you make a cafe work without laptops. I’m fully supportive of having more of a community aspect going on. I wish him luck.”
Bednarz knows some people will be put off by his experiment or will assume he is anti-technology. “I’m not a luddite. I’m a technology guy,” he said. “I use technology to promote the business. I use technology to run the business. But I don’t think it should run our lives. I don’t think it’s healthy to go out into a social place and pretend that you’re by yourself.”
Bednarz feels it’s fair to ask his customers who enjoy the vibe, music, atmosphere and the liveliness of his café to participate in it. “In order for me to continue to serve customers I have to ask for certain things that make it profitable for me,” he said.
To create community Bednarz has activities planned like Wednesday movie nights, art openings on First Fridays, bike rides and much more. As always, he is open to feedback from customers to help shape the direction of the neighborhood cafe.
“I just want to remind people we have a real need for human interaction,” he said. “We don’t get that out of our television screens or our gadgets. We get that out of pressing flesh and looking people in the eye.”
Video co-produced with Mary Flynn.