Sunday, August 08, 2010

Cafe: Private or Public Space

Image: Edwin's Cafe in East Harlem
Yet again, "Dear Abby" is fodder for this blog. Because I have given a lot of thought to the geography of coffee shops, I see the third letter in yesterday's Dear Abby column as a good starting point for some geographic ruminations.
DEAR ABBY: Once a week I meet with three friends at a coffee shop/restaurant. We sit for at least an hour chatting and catching up about our families. I'm the only one in the group who orders anything, and it's usually just a beverage. It makes me uncomfortable that no one else orders and we take up the table for an hour. This has gone on for a while, and I have not found a way to say anything. Can you help? -- FRIEND IN SACRAMENTO


DEAR FRIEND: If the owner or manager of the place objected to the fact that you are taking up the table, something would have been said by now, or a notice would have been printed stating that customers must place a minimum order per person. However, because you feel awkward being the only person having something, tell your friends how you feel and that you'd feel more comfortable if they ordered something, too.
In this case, writer "FRIEND" grasps something important that Abby does not. Coffee shops and restaurants are private spaces, and recovering the rent on those spaces is a very important part of keeping the shops profitable. The owner of a coffee shop is often literally paying rent, often on a square-foot basis, to a property owner. Even if the cafe and its real estate are owned by the same person, the prevailing rent is an important benchmark, since a business that does not meet that rent could presumably be replaced by some other use that does.

Although the land rent is described on an square-foot basis averaged over the entire establishment, it can be refined to differentiate the value of spaces within the shop. The counter space immediately next to the cash register, for example, usually has a particularly high rent value, which is why high-turnover, impulse items are usually placed there.

The writer intrinsically understands that the tables have a rent value, and that a single beverage at a table for four is literally not paying the rent. I can think of several reasons that the management has not responded, none of which make the behavior of this group acceptable. It could be, for example, that these visits take place at an off-peak time, when the "rent" of the table is lower. It could also be that this cafe -- like many that offer wifi -- errs on the side of accommodation, taking the occasional loss in return for some gains overall. Everyone involved, however, should consider this question: would the space be available for these weekly gatherings if every customer brought along three free riders?

In this blog, I frequently write about the value and importance of public spaces and resources, so my defense of private property in this case might seem incongruous. Quite the contrary: the writer and her friends clearly need to take their activities either to a more private space (i.e., their homes) or a truly public space, like a park. By treating this private space as a public space, they contribute a bit to its demise.

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