Will Wi-Fi-Free Coffee Shops Appeal to Instagram-Obsessed Millennials?

It used to be that people went to coffee shops to get Wi-Fi.

Now they go to escape from it.

You know what it’s like. You walk into a Starbucks and see every seat taken by a college student or freelancer staring at their screens like zombies. There’s nowhere to sit, it’s eerily quiet except for the generic acoustic background music and the intermittent blast of the espresso machine. Every Starbucks feels the same not only because the company took the idea of the traditional coffeehouse and turned it into an easily-franchised, top-down corporate imitation of a coffeehouse but also because most of the patrons adopt the same screen-addicted behavior when they are in one.

When I moved to Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Wi-Fi-free bookstore/bar near me, Kibbitznest Books, Brews & Blarney, which bans laptops and discourages smartphone use. Annie Kostiner, co-founder of Kibbitznest, said she started the Chicago-based non-profit as a way to preserve face-to-face communication. Instead of Wi-Fi, it provides patrons with board games, musical instruments, conversation table cards, typewriters and used books available for purchase.

As a graduate student at University of Illinois at Chicago, Kostiner studied how teachers educate children. The research shows children’s neural pathways change when they use screens, even in children as young as two, she said. Teacher training needs to include information about how they learn, she said. Increased screen time is physiologically changing children’s brains.

“Children who come here with their parents tell me they get all of their homework on the computer. We’re going down the wrong path,” Kostiner told me.

Her bookstore takes a light approach to a serious topic, Kostiner said. Kibbitznest was named after the Yiddish word kibbitz, which means “to play,” and nest conveys warmth, she said.

The Wild Detectives, a bookstore and bar in Dallas, Texas, has also adopted a light touch in promoting face-to-face interactions rather than screens. Although it bans Wi-Fi on the weekends, it partnered with a co-working space, Common Desk, to provide work-oriented spaces for customers, including access to Wi-Fi. But the focus remains on getting out from behind our screens to interact with others. “Do you think that Hemingway, Faulkner or Kerouac became Hemingway, Faulkner and Kerouac had they just sat behind their typewriters? Conversation and human interaction, those are the raw materials stories are made of,” Wild Detective’s website notes.

Other cafes have shut down their Wi-Fi and banned screens entirely. Jodi Whalen, owner of August First Bakery & Café in Burlington, Vermont, told NPR that she shut off the café’s Wi-Fi after realizing that she was losing potential customers. When people realized that the café was just a holding pen for people sitting and staring at their laptop computers all day, they didn’t bother to come in and sit down. She experimented with shutting off the Wi-Fi during lunch service, and eventually pulled the plug entirely.

“A lot of people were disappointed. But we actually saw our sales increase,” Whalen told NPR.

It’s not just coffee shops and book bars that are starting to offer screen-free spaces. Amtrak’s Quiet Car bans phone calls, and portable electronic devices must be muted or used with headphones, with the volume low enough so other passengers can’t hear the sound. The goals are different. The coffee shops and book bars encourage conversation and community, and Amtrak Quiet Cars support silence, not socialization. But the point about being present remains the same.

This is the opposite approach of the increasing number of restaurants and businesses that are catering to millennials by changing their décor and food to make them more Instagram-worthy.

We should welcome the pushback against our tech-saturated public spaces. Americans already spend more than ten hours every day in front of their screens, according to a Nielsen Total Audience report. I’m surprised the number isn’t higher. Americans read most of their news on smartphones, and spend countless hours on social media. And yet, around-the-clock access to breaking news on social media and TV increases stress levels, Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and the American Psychological Association’s associate executive director for practice research and policy, told NPR.

Wi-Fi-free businesses are serving a new and hopefully growing segment of the population—the people who realize they need more real-world interactions and fewer virtual ones, more space for quiet contemplation rather than incessant social media posts. What Annie Kostiner observed of Kibbitznest could apply to all of us: “There needs to be a balance. We’re not no-tech. We’re low-tech,” she said.

Image: Facebook/Kibbitznest Books, Brews & Blarney

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