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Play Nice: Learning To Share Outlets At Starbucks

Writers discuss coffeeshop etiquette and the need to charge.

Bloggers and independent writers like me and those with entrepreneurial tendencies could breathe a sigh of relief when decided to offer free Wi-Fi last June.

That meant that we could no longer twiddle our thumbs or bang our heads against the table claiming writers block when the real ailment was procrastination.

Starbucks for me has become an office away from my home office.

Others have told me that free Internet has allowed them to work without distraction, in a comfortable atmosphere that makes the lonely job of writing a little less “single.”  

And there is tons of coffee to keep you up. 

But there is not tons of is electrical outlets.

When I walk into my usual office in Belmont’s Cushing Square, my eyes dart under the tables around the legs of patrons and onto the walls to spot open electrical sockets.

I had a bad battery and needed my computer to be plugged in most of the time. But realizing this was bad for business and my computer, and not fair to others that need the outlets, I purchased a new battery.

Last week, I was relaxed at the secondary choice office on Leonard Street because my battery was fully charged. And I felt good not hoarding the other plugs allowing someone else to make better use of it.

But two hours later and I was panicking. My computer sucked out all the juice and I was staring at a black screen. 

I asked the lady working on her computer near me if she would allow me to plug in my computer to restart it, save the work and shut it down properly.

She indicated she was about to leave, but that in the meantime I could use another outlet. With no open tables that meant moving and imposing myself on someone else. 

After I scrambled around and made an embarrassing scene at a table that turned out not to have outlets, I returned to my original spot and the lady. 

Another failed attempt to have an outlet shared, so defeated, I went home and wrote the rest of the article later. 

However, I was annoyed by the incident.

It brought up the question of public space: How do we share it?

How should we handle simple things like sharing outlets? Do they need to be shared? Or is it first come and first serve, even though writers like me will probably use that outlet for several hours.

Belmont resident and writer Christopher Keane told me he comes to Starbucks daily to write and has never had a problem with outlets. If he found himself in a similar situation as me he would not ask to share the outlet. Instead, he would wait for the next available outlet.

“My feeling is that they have the plug they were here first and everyone gets up and leaves one time or another and there are plugs around. So I just move around.”

Keane takes an extra step of consideration and asks patrons sitting at tables near open outlets if they mind him plugging in.  

He is just one of many that are contributing to a Starbucks business culture. Any given afternoon you will find many people busily typing away on hardware. Or groups of two or more conducting are a business meeting. All of this because of the free Internet has allowed us to be more mobile.

Patrick McCrann is just one of many with the freedom to work from the nationwide coffee chain. He thinks that if one person views outlet availability as being scarce, that pushes others to do the same even though there is enough to go around. To avoid reinforcing that idea he refrains from plugging in until necessary.

“If you are a person that keeps coming with a computer, you don’t do so randomly, you do so frequently. So there is an implied level of understanding that we are working in this space,” he explained. 

“I will not go over [to another table with an outlet] until I do need it to plug in,” he said.

Even though we are here to work, McCrann believes we all are on Starbucks time and that means no names are written on the outlets.

When McCrann found himself without his MacBook power cord, he was not shy in asking another patron to share.

My conversations with both men stirred-up other annoyances that happen as a cause of limited space, such as saving seats and being subjected to cell phone conversations.

I admitted to sometimes saving a seat while waiting for my colleagues to arrive. After those conversations I will now think twice about it. 

I will also think twice before asking someone to unplug their computer for me.

Unbeknownst to me, Keane said there was an outlet hidden behind one of the comfy chairs, where I was sitting on that day.

“I did not know that,” I looked around for it still not seeing it.

“Now you know,” he said. 

tess_shiva February 04, 2011 at 12:39 PM
Perhaps Starbucks could hardwire eight-outlet surge protectors on each outlet ($30 each, according to the MicroCenter website) assuming they see a cost/benefit to doing so. Barring the liability of criss-crossing power cords running everywhere, problem solved.
Natalie Trusso Cafarello February 04, 2011 at 11:23 PM
I agree Tess. And in my opinion they most likely launched free Wi-Fi expecting to accommodate the business culture and independents like me. I went to the Lexington SB yesterday and there were only two plugs, but oddly I didn't have to fight anyone for it. It was like everyone knew that and so they were working at the larger Lexington SB down the road.

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