October 9th, 2017 by Oren Smilansky

I was hanging out at a neighborhood coffee shop this weekend, lazily reading an article on my phone, when the calm in my general vicinity was interrupted by a voice. I looked up to see what was going on, and saw that the owner of the store was quietly berating a man seated at one of the tables near me. His tone was stern, and I couldn’t resist the urge to eavesdrop. I didn’t catch every word, but heard enough to tell that he was lecturing this customer about the proper etiquette in coffee shops. “Sir,” the owner said, in as low a voice he could manage, “you cannot just sit here all day without buying anything. This is a business–my business. I pay the rent, the electricity, the internet. All of it comes from out of my pocket. This is not a library or an office. You must buy something or leave. Do you understand?”

It’s unclear why the owner had singled out this particular customer (or, rather, non-customer), but judging by the look on the guy’s face–and everyone seated near him–he seemed as surprised as I was. Not to mention embarrassed. His delivery seemed if not rehearsed, then at least practiced.

Though located just a few minutes away from my apartment, it isn’t a coffee shop that I go to often, but I vaguely remember witnessing a similar episode about a two years earlier (probably the last time I’d been there). Then, as now, the owner had confronted a customer about what was and wasn’t acceptable within the bounds of his store. He had pointed to a printout sign he had tacked to one of the walls, which outlined in hostile, bold, red and black fonts, that, among other things, it was against the rules to hold meetings, or use computers. “If you own a business or startup, rent an office!” the sign said.

The guy who’d been picked on this time defended himself, claiming he intended to buy something but hadn’t gotten to it yet. He was with a friend, and they both had thick textbooks open on the table in front of them. They seemed young, probably in college, and likely on a budget. The friend he was sitting with had a mug, indicating she had already made her requisite purchase, though who knows how long ago that might have been. “It’s just that I’ve never heard of a coffee shop that doesn’t allow people to come in and work,” the guy said, remaining calm.

And neither had I, when I thought about it. Most people I know go to coffee shops when they want to be productive. That is their primary appeal. Judging by the design of this place, it didn’t seem to be the exception. As is, the place, which bills itself as an “espresso bar” feels inviting. There’s a great ambiance and a laid back feel when you walk through the doors that seems to send the unconscious message that guests–whether paying or not–are always welcome. In my experience, restaurants that don’t want people to just sit and hang out typically have hosts who will show someone to their table, or waiters that will come by every so often and make a gesture suggest that it’s time they get moving.

I felt somewhat tempted to ask the owner if he understood the business he had gone into. Did he realize that the main attraction of a coffee shop is that they are relaxing places where people go with the simple goal of studying or getting work done?

I wondered if the strategy he currently had in place been effective. The shop seems to be highly successful, even though the owner’s conduct runs contrary to common sense. He was still in business, and his Yelp! page had earned an average of 4.5 stars out of 160 reviews. I was reminded of Seinfeld’s famous “Soup Nazi” episode. If I had to name nickname him, I’d call him the coffee shop cop.

To a certain extent, I can sympathize with the coffee shop cop, though I don’t approve of the way he treats his customers. I’ve always thought it was an odd phenomenon, the fact that people hang out in coffee shops for hours on end, when they wouldn’t dare to do it in establishments. And, after all, this is in upper Manhattan, where everyone and everything seems just a bit rougher around the edges. I could only imagine having to run a place that is obligated to welcome in every stranger from the street.

I left the shop shortly after that incident, and likely won’t be returning any time soon, even though they have the best coffee in my neighborhood. There is another coffee shop right next door, not quite as fancy, that I consistently choose over it. And now I remember why that is.

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