When Victrola Coffee & Art, a popular cafe on 15th Avenue on Capitol Hill, decided to shut off its free wi-ﬁ internet access on weekends, it didn't take long for the news to spread. Word broke on Seattle-based Wi-Fi Networking News (www.wifinetnews.com) last week, and by Tuesday, the news had gone literally around the world, landing in London's Financial Times and a newspaper in Bulgaria, according to head Victrola roaster Tony Konecny.
Victrola co-owner Jen Strongin says the decision to cut off the coffee shop's free wi-ﬁ on weekends was "about preserving the cafe's culture" and lively environment. "Victrola has become more like a library than a cafe," Strongin says. "We're not trying to force people to interact with each other, but with the free wi-ﬁ, there's pretty much no conversation at all."
The reaction to Victrola's decision was strong and instantaneous. By early this week, proponents and opponents of Victrola's decision had jammed blogs like Metroblogging Seattle (seattle.metblogs.com/), Konecny's blog (www.tonx.org), and The Stranger's own Slog (www.thestranger.com/blog) with comments. One poster referred to Victrola management as "Wi-Fi Nazis"; another accused Victrola of "trying to increase turnover to get more proﬁt per table"-the implication being, of course, that businesses should have other interests than proﬁt in mind. "People have talked about how we're horrible capitalist pigs," an exasperated Strongin says. "They think we're sitting in our Victrola mansion laughing about all the extra cash we're making."
Meanwhile, supportive customers, who outnumbered opponents on the blogs by at least two to one, have noted that businesses like Victrola have every right to expect customers to pay their way. Caffe Ladro, down the street, offers free wi-ﬁ, but only for one hour; Starbucks, the only other coffee shop on that stretch of 15th Avenue, charges $29.95 a month. And, supportive bloggers pointed out, laptops do have a way of turning conversational, lively coffee shops into solemn reading rooms. "The wall of laptops at Victrola is especially intimidating," one typical posting read.
Throughout Seattle, access to free wi-ﬁ is only increasing. One week ago, Mayor Greg Nickels announced a pilot project to provide free wi-ﬁ internet access in two business districts and four downtown public parks. Eventually, Strongin acknowledges, free wi-ﬁ could become available everywhere, even Victrola. "At that point, it'll be out of my control." On the other hand, she adds, "people may not feel the need to congregate in places," like Victrola, "that have it."