Mark Bernstein likes to work at the Chestnut Hill Coffee Company (Photo by Lane Blackmer)

by Lane Blackmer

Coffee shops have long been thought of as the perfect meeting place for bohemians, intellectuals or even the cast of “Friends.” While today they are still the same gathering places where espresso machines hiss over the constant din of conversation, coffee shops everywhere are becoming office spaces where many patrons can be found hanging over their laptops.

Just enter the Chestnut Hill Coffee Company, at 8620 Germantown Ave., and you’ll see them. Owner Sultan Malikyar opened the Coffee Company almost seven years ago. It is the only independent coffee shop and roaster in the neighborhood.

In the shop’s early days, Malikyar remembers his customers meeting there for conversation and a cup of Joe. But that has since changed.

“Three or four years ago, I saw more and more people coming to work,” he said.

Malikyar – who has noticed this in other shops as well – attributes the growing trend to the affordability of electronic devices and availability of Internet access. And all that free Wi-Fi.

According to a 2003 CNET story, NetGear CEO Patrick Lo said the explosion happened somewhere around 2001 when Wi-Fi became affordable and easier to use. And with that change also came an increasing number of people working from home.

Mark Bernstein, a Mt. Airy resident, is one of those workers. He’s been a writer –doing things like penning books and working for the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” – for the past 15 years.

Working from home, he said, presents challenges like being temped to do housework or take his dog for a walk. So he’s happy to be able to get away from home.

“Somebody wrote once that the coffee shop was the optimal level of distraction because it’s not so quiet that you can hear a pin drop, but it’s not so noisy and crazy that you can’t think,” he said. “I seem to be able to get more work done here.”

Along with an increase in workers, some think that students are more likely than in the past to camp out at coffee shops too.

Scott Jones, a University of Pennsylvania student, said he thinks studying has become social. He said his father thinks studying at coffee shops is absurd.

“He thinks the coffee shop thing is kind of strange,” he said. “For them, when people would work, they’d have an office or place of work, and at school most of the studying was done at libraries.”

Jones said he does spend time at Penn’s library, but being at school for that long is too much for him.

“Most of my classes are night classes, so I can’t deal with being at school for 13 hours,” he said. “So I’ll get up, study at a coffee shop [until] noon-ish or so and then head to school.”

When it comes to the problem of customers staying for too long, Jones said he hadn’t much thought about it. But he does see it as something that could be problematic.

“I guess it just depends on this coffee shop,” he said. “People sitting for five hours [in a coffee shop could] sink them, but a place like this, since they have a roastery upstairs, I’d imagine they make a good amount from where they sell their beans.”

Bernstein, however, said that since he spends about half his workweek in coffee shops, he thinks it’s only fair that he give back.

“I try to make sure I keep up my supply of buying something, so I’m not just taking up space,” he said. “You could come in here and buy a $2 coffee and spend the whole day, but that isn’t fair to the people who own the place.”

Malikyar said he does indeed see people doing this in his shop. Of the things he’s seen – people leaving their items and going to lunch, customers bringing their own food and customers snapping at others for bringing their children around.

“There’s always an exception for people who take advantage of the situation,” he said. “They use it as their office, they get on their phone, they’re loud.”

But ultimately, Malikyar said he thinks offering Wi-Fi at his coffee shop is the right answer. Among the many possibilities to help regulate the situation, he said, is adding signage to limit time spent there. But that’s not really the right answer, he said.

“It’s a battle that’s continuing, and it’s really hard to come up with a solution,” Malikyar said. “Next thing you know you’ve got little stickers everywhere.”

Drew Meschter, a Mt. Airy resident, said he comes often to Chestnut Hill Coffee Company and sees people use the space for their office all too often.

He said he feels sorry for the owner and has seen other solutions such as having customers pay for Internet usage, having the internet cut out after half an hour or not offering Wi-Fi.

Because none of those are the case at the Coffee Company, he said he – like Bernstein – also tries to buy more when he’s camped out there.

“I understand it’s a delicate balance,” he said. “I always feel sensitive here because it’s a cool place, but I have no sensitive guilt when I go to Starbucks.”

But there are those who still sit in coffee shops for the social aspect of it.

Ren Monte, who does not come to coffee shops to work, said it’s more of a time for him to unwind and is in and out in an hour or less.

“Usually I come in on the weekends as a time to relax in the morning before I start my day and get all wound up with Saturday and Sunday chores,” he said.

But Monte also said he’s made friends from frequenting the Coffee Company.

“If you see people several times, you just start talking to them,” he said. “So I’ve actually made friends here and realized they live down the street from me.”

Monte said he generally sticks to sitting downstairs, which has music playing from a stereo in a cubby. Upstairs, he said, seems more like a library than a public space.

When it comes down to it, Malikyar said – office workers or not – he’s still going to focus on producing a quality product.

“The culture of coffee shops has changed, but we’re not going to change our primary goal as being the best as far as product,” he said. “Our primary goal and mission is to provide people with coffee. To smell, taste and appreciate what’s in the cup, that’s the primary part of this business.”