No Wi-Fi: A Very Short Q&A with Alan from Borderlands Cafe


A couple weeks back, I was in a bad way. I’d recently joined Twitter, was always on Facebook, and checked my email (and I don’t exaggerate) about 75 times a day. I couldn’t stand it, but I also couldn’t stop. I spent more than half my waking hours on a screen.

It’s not heroin. I should have been able to stop myself. But I couldn’t. Really. I wasn’t getting any writing done. I was ignoring my girlfriend and my friends. I was reading George Packer’s musings on how all this technology needs to stop and tearing up. I read this article about heavy web users being depressed. I agreed. I checked my email again.

And then, I found this essay at The Millions about a student who had to go to a corner of the Coop in Harvard Square where the wireless didn’t work  to get writing done, and, after chuckling at the irony, I decided to do what he did.  I had heard about a coffeeshop called Borderlands Cafe, affiliated with Borderlands Bookstore, that had opened just a couple months ago here in San Francisco.

Not only do they not have wireless, but they don’t have music, and everything is remarkably well lit. 

By the time I left the coffeeshop, I’d cleared my head and written 3,000 words. With the Internet and music to distract me, it would take me a month to write that much, and I would have ended the day more panicked then when I started. I also couldn’t help but notice how many people were buying magazines and coffee. Even more striking was how many people thanked the barista for the store’s policies.

I was grateful, too. Not having wireless or music was a brave move on their part. So I sent Alan Beatts at Borderlands Cafe an e-mail (from another coffee shop down the street) with a few questions about their policies, and he was kind enough to respond.

Rumpus: Why did you decide not to have wireless or music and to keep the place so well lit?

Alan Beatts: The question of wireless was one that I considered for quite a long time. Even up to the last month before we opened I was on the fence. But, during the process of writing our mission statement, I realized that our focus on creating a social space rather than a work-space and my desire to encourage people to interact with each other made the decision about WiFi pretty clear. I’ve observed and been told many times about how the availability of Wi-Fi creates a space where people are wrapped up in their own, solitary world and not interacting with each other. That was not the kind of place I wanted to own or work in.

The question of lights and music both came from my intention to make the literary world an intrinsic element to the cafe. Since I come from bookselling and the cafe is a child of my bookstore, it was a logical fit. Most of the writers that I know do not work to music (at least not music with vocals) and I know that I can’t write when someone else’s words are rocketing around in my head. That, combined with the social element that I’ve mentioned both argued against music (it’s hard to talk when the music is loud and, if lots of people are talking, you have to turn the music up if it’s going to be heard). All that said, it’s possible that we may have music playing at sometimes in the future, since there’s also an attraction to a bustling, noisy space on, let’s say, a Friday night. But most times, the cafe will probably be pretty quiet.

And as for the lighting, it’s hard to write and impossible to read in the dark. And, I personally like well lighted spaces to work in.

Rumpus: Have you encountered many customers who are upset by your policies? Have you encountered many who are grateful?

Beatts: Not many (are upset), really. And most of them don’t become customers. They walk in, ask if we have WiFi, get a negative answer, and walk out. But for each person like that, we probably get ten or more who say how much they like the absence of it. And probably half of those people comment positively on the absence of music. I know for a fact that there are two writers (friends of mine) who really appreciate being able to concentrate on  writing rather then getting distracted by email, instant messages, and the web.

In closing, I should probably point out that I love music and noisy cafes as well as having nothing whatsoever against Wi-Fi or the Internet in general. I’m constantly grateful when I travel that there are cafes with Wi-Fi out there in the world and I think it’s a very valuable service that the owners of those places offer the public. And hell, I used to run nightclubs — I adore a loud place with a million conversations bubbling in the background and music thumping down. But, I wanted Borderlands to be a bit different and conducive to pursuits that benefit from some calmness and limited distractions. And it seems, based on the feedback, that there are a fair number of people who appreciate it.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →