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Top 5 Coffee-Shop Etiquette Tips in the Age of Laptop Hobos

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I don't know about you, but I can easily hole up in a coffee shop, start writing (and by that I mean scouring Facebook and watching cat videos on YouTube) and not realize until three hours later that I haven't moved or refilled my cup. But coffee-shop owners, it seems, are noticing.

I've read a number of recent articles detailing the measures taken by coffee shops around the country to ensure that "laptop hobos" aren't taking up space that could be used by paying customers. As early as August 2011, some New York City Starbucks locations began covering outlets so people could only partake of free Wi-Fi as long as their batteries lasted. A Denver shop called Wooden Spoon recently stopped offering free Wi-Fi and banned laptops and cell phones altogether. Some businesses are taking an even more passive-aggressive route, changing the Wi-Fi password every two hours or placing an automatic time limit on Internet access so you have to buy something else if you want to continue to use the free service.

I talked to a few Houston coffee shops to see what the baristas thought about "laptop hobos," and the responses from employees of Agora, Blacksmith and Antidote were surprisingly pro-technology. All agreed that the use of free Wi-Fi on laptops and tablets was generally not an issue.

"The only time it's egregious is when they don't buy anything," one of Antidote's coffee gurus told me. "It's okay if you buy the cheapest thing and stay as long as you want. But I have kicked people out for not buying anything."

Fair enough. With that in mind, and after talking to some customers as well, I came up with this list of coffee-shop etiquette tips. And no, I didn't write it while drinking one cup of tea for three hours at Starbucks. Not this time, at least.

5. One chair per butt. Yes, that is a nice laptop case. And I bet you spent more money on that purse than I do on my rent. They're both lovely. Now put them on the floor. No matter how empty a place is, it's rude to take up an extra chair for your belongings. It's especially inconsiderate in a busy place with little seating such as Blacksmith and most Starbucks locations. Don't be a table hog, either. If it's just you and your laptop at a giant table, don't fill it up with papers and plates and empty mugs. It's not your personal desk. Make it clear that someone else can sit there too by keeping your clutter to a minimum.

4. Headphones I don't care how funny that guy inhaling cinnamon is. I don't want to hear him hacking. I also don't want to hear the theme song from last night's episode of Dexter or listen to your grandma tell you what she had for lunch. Coffee shops are a gathering place, so feel free to talk. Any sound that comes out of your computer or tablet, though, should be funneled through headphones.

3. Clean up after yourself. I know, I know, waiters and waitresses get paid to clean up after you, right? Well, sometimes. If all you've had is a cup of coffee and a roll, it's pretty easy for you to take your mug and plate back up to the counter so a barista doesn't have to bus your table. This is especially true if there's a designated spot for dirty dishes. Also remember to put chairs and tables back where you found them if you had to move them for any reason.

2. Share bandwidth. Don't download huge files or stream movies for hours. It uses a lot of bandwidth that should be shared among everyone working. And if you're just watching movies, maybe go home. But if you know you'll need to download a large file, try to do that at home or work before you get to a coffee shop so as not to slow down the Internet for everyone else. I realize that sometimes people work in coffee shops because the Internet at their house or workplace is down. I suppose in that case it might be okay. Just don't make a habit out of it.

1. For the love of God, buy something! Most places don't seem to care what you buy, but it's pretty much a rule that there's no such thing as "free Wi-Fi" (unless you mooch it off your neighbor, but that's definitely something I know nothing about...). Many articles about coffee shop etiquette online maintain that it's common courtesy to buy something new every 90 minutes to two hours. Oddly, in this case the shop employees didn't agree, but the customers I talked to did. At Blacksmith, they said folks can stay as long as they want to if they've bought something to eat or drink. Agora concurred. The customers I talked to said they'd probably feel guilty (or at least get hungry) if they continued to work for hours without purchasing something else. With good, honest citizens like these, perhaps Houston shops won't have to resort to covering outlets.

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