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Carberry's Café in Cambridge, MA (now closed)What are the ingredients for the perfect working café?

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’m heading into a period when I expect to spend a lot of time working in coffee shops.  I’ve spent a lot of my career, including my most productive periods, working in coffee shops, largely because they offer the perfect balance of solitude and simulation. I don’t work well in totally silent environments —  the inside of my brain is way noisier than any café, so the background noise of a coffee shop helps to drown that out. But unlike an office, where you know the people around you (and may therefore get interrupted by them) a coffee shop offers the benefit of background noise without the interruptions.

That said, not every coffee shop is created equal when it comes to getting your work done. My first long-term coffee shop relationship was with the now-defunct Carberry’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I did the lion’s share of my grad school reading and note-taking. At the time I was obsessed with Tony Buzan’s method for mind-mapping, which involved using lots of markers to turn all my reading notes into colorful trees. Since I was constantly switching colors, I left the markers uncapped on the table, so by the time I got to class my left forearm was a veritable rainbow. But at Carberry’s (unlike in my seminars) even my graffiti-ed forearm was unremarkable, because there were so many other even more colorful characters — not least of which was the man steadily filling journal after journal with tiny handwriting and meticulous drawings that (as he explained it to me) were being dictated to him by God.

In the twenty years since then, my criteria for coffee shop heaven have evolved. From the safe remove of two decades, I will confess that a major contributor to my Carberry’s loyalty was the super hot barista I used to flirt with; now I am old and married enough that flirting with young hot baristas would just feel creepy. The advent of wifi pushed connectivity to the top of the list for a long while; now, iPhone tethering and the near-ubiquity of Shaw Go Wifi (wifi service provided by our ISP, free to subscribers, and available almost everywhere in Vancouver) make that much less crucial. In my twenties, I could sit on just about any chair for hours at a stretch; in my forties, I need padded seats if I want to last more than an hour without Advil. Once upon a time, I’d park at any café with butter-filled baked goods…these days, I look for places with healthier options.

But my longtime neighborhood standby — the Take 5 on West 4th — is now closed, so I’m looking for a new office-away-from home. And as with any tech project, this has to begin with a good requirements definition. So here is my first stab at a set of requirements for a great working café in 2014:

Must-haves:

      1. Strong, fast and reliable wifi (free in-house or via Shaw Go)
      2. Power outlets in a few different spots
      3. Location close to home (12 block radius is ideal)
      4. OK smell (we had to give up on a favorite spot because they were constantly mopping the floor with an overpowering cleaning product)
      5. Comfortable chairs with padded seats
      6. Clean
      7. Decent coffee
      8. Bar-style counter seating at a height that allows me to switch to working standing up
      9. No horrible Muzak
      10. Kindly manages disruptive customers (Take 5 unfortunately had a regular visitor who conducted loud shouting matches with an invisible interlocutor; ideally cafés find a way of respectfully addressing these kinds of disruptions — as well as those from overly loud cell phone users — without being unwelcoming)
      11. Clean bathrooms
      12. Quiet enough to make phone calls, but not so quiet that it’s obnoxious to make phone calls

Nice-to-haves:

    1. Nearby free/cheap parking
    2. Wheat-free lunch options (salads, soups, sandwiches on something other than wheat bread) so that I can spend enough on food to avoid being a coffee shop parasite
    3. Friendly baristas
    4. Actually good coffee
    5. Non-table seating options (sofas, easy chairs)
    6. Good music (otherwise I’ll just listen to my own)
    7. Some pleasant (but not intrusive) regulars — Rob and I actually exchanged a few business referrals with a lovely Mac tech we got to know through one of our former haunts
    8. Keyless bathrooms (seriously, is there anything grosser than a bathroom key?)

Of course, I recognize that not every coffee shop wants to attract people who might stay for hours at a time — which is why this list works not only as a set of requirements for me, but as a tip sheet for coffee shop managers who want to repel the likes of me. For these folks, omitting at least 3 of the must-haves should do the job of not only avoiding me, but others like me.

What’s missing from this list? What do you look for in a working coffee shop? And most crucially, what can you recommend as a working coffee shop in Kitsilano, Vancouver? I’d love to hear from you.

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