US coffee shops pull plug on laptop lounging

Owners fed up with patrons buying a coffee and then surfing web for hours

At the recently opened Café Green on New York's First Avenue, owner Yanni Belin was preparing to add the final touch yesterday. At last, the guys were coming to install his wireless internet in the kitchen that divides the front seating area from a small garden at the back.

This seems like a smart move. In Manhattan, just as in every other cosmopolitan US or European city, the café culture has been transformed in recent years by patrons surfing the web on laptops. Laptops and lattes are like bagels and cream cheese.

But Mr Belin is quick to clarify. "Oh, no, the internet is going to be for me, not the customers."

Offering it for free couldn't be further from his mind, for a simple reason: students and doctors from a nearby hospital would come in, switch on and take up tables for hours while maybe spending just a few measly dollars. "If they want to do that they can go round the corner to Starbucks," he said.

Actually, anecdotal evidence suggests he may be not so much bucking the trend as joining it. Call it the stirrings of a laptop backlash.

More and more independent café owners in New York, already squeezed by the recession, are choosing to discourage laptop fans. They may buy one coffee and a bun but thereafter they are space and power spongers.

Bruce Taz, who until last year ran the Broken Cup around the corner from the Green Café, did not ban computers outright when customers discovered they could tap into a wireless signal elsewhere in his building. But they knew not to hang around too long if they weren't spending.

One clue: Bruce had taped over his electric plugs. "I'd say' charge your computer before you come here. Stop using my electricity'," he says.

At Irving 71 Place, near Gramercy Park, owner Muffin Spencer rolls her eyes at the mere mention of the bloggers and browsers as she wrestles with her espresso machine, her hair in a scarf. She refuses to provide free internet and also actively discourages patrons from reaching down for their laptops. "We have writers and so forth in here who already take up table space. We don't have room for that," she says.

Similar tales of internet enmity can be found throughout the New York boroughs.

On the Upper East Side, M. Rohrs' House of Fine Teas and Coffees found itself written up in the papers when it started charging $3 (£1.80) an hour for even powering up a computer. The owners posted a sign that said: "Warning: theft of electrical service is prohibited."

None of this impresses Tehu Ifa, 59, an author and college professor, who admits to spending roughly two hours a day at his local Starbucks, which like most branches in the chain, offers a wireless connection free of charge.

Typically he works on his book about Africa-centric education, sipping on a single short coffee, "occasionally lifting my eyes when a pretty girl come in".

A former resident of Paris, he scoffed at owners taking up arms against surfers like him. "It's so American, don't you think? Everything is always about turnover. In Paris, if you suggested doing this, they would laugh you right out the door. They should relax."

For now, he probably has no reason to worry. Free wireless hot spots abound outdoors in the city, including a new area for surfers in Madison Square Park sponsored by a Japanese car company powered by the sun.

For the winter, he has Starbucks. Unless they switch sides and yank the internet cord too.

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