« Evil-site-scraper-update-and-reader-notice | Main | tax breaks for income over $250,000 for a family to expire ? Middle class could suffer »

Atlas Café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn features laptop users

JUST after 4 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, as a dozen people clicked away on their laptops at the Atlas Café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

ET on the corner of Havemeyer and Grand Streets, and flooded with light from two walls of windows, Atlas Café, which opened in 2003, looks like a combination of worn trattoria and late 1990s Seattle coffeehouse. The name reflects its wall-sized map of the world (there are also a mobile of hanging globes, and flourishes of décor inspired by someone's travel to the Far East). The soundtrack is a mix of old country and folk (Dylan, Willy, Cohen and Cash), classical, bebop and French ballads.

A makeshift milk station sits in the center of the 750-square-foot room. To the left is a long bar of dark stained rustic wood, where people order food and drink (proper espressos for $1.50, excellent panini, salads and deadly little chocolate-filled Italian doughnuts, $3), as well as the windowless, orange washroom. There are three stools at the bar, and beside them a table of reclaimed timber pressed against a cozy window bench. According to two signs, this little corner, perhaps one-sixth of the cafe, is designated a laptop-free zone.

Everything beyond is Laptopistan: two rows of old church pews formed into an elongated L, each fronted by small wooden tables and chairs. Scattered along the pews are tattered blue tubular pillows, for lumbar support. Windows run along the walls, flooding the computer zone with natural light during the day, creating a fishbowl effect for those inside looking out, and for passers-by, who frequently stop and stare at the tableau.

Entering Laptopistan is a task in itself. The floor presents an obstacle course of power cables snaking their way around coffee cups, over chairs, and around table legs, eventually finding a home in one of two power strips that look as though they came from a Soviet coal refinery. Whenever a plug is inserted, the outlet sparks, and certain movements can cause all the plugs on a given strip to simultaneously eject.

A quick glance around shows I have brought my laptop, a month-old MacBook Pro, to its nesting ground. Diversity here means the odd white MacBook or old black PowerBook scattered amid the silver MacBook Pros. Throughout the week I will see only a handful of PCs, each looking sadly out of place, like they have arrived at a black-tie affair in a corduroy blazer.

I worked for a few hours, and quickly learned the principal laws of Laptopistan:

Silence Is Golden. There is no prohibition on talking, of course, but, as one Atlas regular of several years, Joelle Hann, explained, "there's almost a code that people aren't going to talk loud." When people's phones ring, they run outside as fast as possible to take the call.

"If someone's on Skype or having a conversation, people make an effort to chill out their conversations with looks," said Ms. Hann, a yoga teacher and a freelance journalist and textbook editor. "When they don't stop, you can feel the tension." Shushing conversations is equally verboten. "No one wants to be the librarian," Ms. Hann added.

Respect Personal Space. While any open seat is technically available, it is forbidden to set up your computer on a table with a computer already on it; doubling up is allowed only when all tables are taken. At the same time, people bounce from table to table throughout the day, chasing the sun, the shade or their own feng shui.

Mind Your Neighborhood. When you get up to take a call, get coffee or use the washroom, you need only to look at a neighbor, make eye contact, look back at your computer and nod. The deal is sealed without a word: You watch my MacBook and I'll watch yours.

MOST Laptopistanis -- Laptopistanites? Laptopistanians? -- at Atlas are in their 20s, 30s or early 40s, split evenly between men and women. The dress is casual, with both sexes wearing T-shirts, sweaters and jeans, though a few women seem dressed for "work" with button-down blouses, blazers, even a dress or two. Most Laptopistanis work alone, though occasionally I spotted a group collaborating at a corner table. Socially, Laptopistan is a conservative society; outward displays of emotion are frowned upon. Most people hide behind their screens.

Aaron Tugendhaft is the exception. He appears at Atlas every morning for a few hours, tie askew, black coffee at his side, some heady-looking book in front of him. Mr. Tugendhaft, who is an adjunct professor of religion at New York University and the editor of a small custom press, is one of the only Atlas regulars I observed sans laptop.

"I've made friends with people because I'm the only guy without a computer," he told me, quietly, one morning. "A book can be a conversation starter."

Mr. Tugendhaft has been coming to Atlas nearly every day for three and a half years, but there are many Laptopistanis he has never spoken to. ("Some of them are in the room right now," he confided in a low voice, eyeing a woman in a jean jacket two tables over.) He has dated fellow Laptopistanis, but not anymore, preferring to keep romance out of the workplace. People tend to keep to themselves, he said, until something breaks the routine: an argument between lovers, news of a subway breakdown, or, most often, some sort of interaction around the power strips.

"Power is power," Mr. Tugendhaft said.

Mallory Roberts, a longhaired freelance astrophysicist, said that he had met two girlfriends (now exes), and his current roommate, via power-strip negotiations. "Three months ago Courtney was looking for a plug and we got to talking," he said of the roommate, with whom he is now working on a documentary about a giant telescope in Puerto Rico. "It turns out we went to the same university, and she needed a place to stay.

"There's a recognition here," he added, "that people come to a cafe to not be alone."

THE cost of living in Laptopistan, at least for my personal intake of tea, bagels, sandwiches and salad, averaged $12 a day. Other cafes popular with freelancers charge for wireless Internet access and even table time, but the owners of the Atlas, Enrico Lorenzetti and Luca Tesconi, refuse to. Observing the gross daily consumption in Laptopistan, where people seem to nurse a cup of coffee and a cookie for hours, I could not imagine how the two managed to stay in business. But they said the laptops were a stealth economic engine.

While the people behind the screens spent a paltry $6 to $10 per day, their true value is as a draw for more profitable takeout customers, Mr. Lorenzetti said. From the moment the door opens at 7 a.m. until it closes at 9 p.m., the place is buzzing, a productive society, visible from the street through wraparound windows. "People come in to buy food and coffee to go, because they see a full crowd," he said. "They think 'Hey, this place must be good if I can't even get a table.' "

My long-held notion that Laptopistan's citizens were just sitting around e-mailing other writers in other cafes around the world dissipated as I got to know the MacBook Pro owners around me. Sure, there were aspiring screenwriters, novelists and people updating Twitter, but there was also Gauri Nanda, a product designer from Detroit who created Clocky, the alarm clock on wheels that's featured at the MoMA store and sold worldwide. There was Billy Schultz, a corporate human resources consultant crunching numbers for spreadsheets in PowerPoint and Excel (on a Lenovo PC, no less), and Meredith Sadin, working on her doctorate in American politics at Princeton.

Laptopistan's is an entrepreneurial economy, driven by solitary thinkers. Aszure Barton, a choreographer from Alberta, was working with colleagues to prepare for her contemporary dance show called BUSK, which will debut Dec. 17 at the Jerome Robbins Theater. Robert Olinger runs a biotech startup that is getting silkworms to make spider silk at commercial scale, designs online education programs for the New York City Department of Education, and directs theater projects with Russian artists. In just a few days I met architects and event planners, database designers, classical musicians, film editors and app developers, every facet of the creative economy working under one roof, not so much together as in tandem.

"Here, people have large ambitions," Mr. Olinger said. "Some have resources, some don't. They don't have career plans mapped out, but they have a career in mind. They're not looking at a particular ladder to climb, they're looking at a mountain to conquer."

Destination: LAPTOPISTAN
Published: December 3, 2010
The cafe is a place to go when working at home no longer works, where entrepreneurs and creative types can toil in solitude, together.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)