DALLAS MORNING NEWS (2016): WHY-FI?
David Hopkins sends up a distress signal about the toll free Wi-Fi is taking on any opportunities to build a home base for the literati in Dallas bookstores
BY DAVID HOPKINS
You can find a Wi-Fi signal almost anywhere, at bars, coffeehouses, libraries and bookstores, at most McDonald’s locations, on airplanes, trains and even in some cars, at home and at work. Klyde Warren Park has Wi-Fi, so does the Dallas Museum of Art and the American Airlines Center. Some cities make free Wi-Fi available to everyone.
Since Wi-Fi is so plentiful, it may seem absurd to even wonder if there should be places where laptops and tablets are considered uncouth. After all, Facebook must accompany us wherever we go. Wi-Fi provides an unspoken invitation to plug in and tune out. In some places, it’s expected.
However, the mere existence of Wi-Fi can change the culture of location. For people who care about digital over-saturation, the challenge is to determine where are the sacred spaces within a bustling city, places where we lose the signal and pull the plug. We need that.
For me, it’s begins with a bookstore.
Wild Detectives is an independent bookstore, café and bar located in a renovated house, hidden within the Bishop Arts District. I love this place, not only for what it is — an awfully cool hangout spot with books — but for what it strives to be: a literary hub for a better Dallas. The homey setting gives it the feel of a salon, the kind of place where people gather to talk about philosophy, politics and poetry. Where any time you walk in, you’re sure to see some local writer drinking a gin and tonic while scribbling ideas, or a singer/songwriter broadcasting his pain in the backyard. In my overly romantic imagination, this is Wild Detectives.
I wonder if Dallas is ready for such a place. For the most part, Dallas is a pragmatic city. It defers to what is proven and predictable, another bar with a gimmick, another place where people can drag their laptops, another coffeehouse that doubles as an office away from the office. When something unique like Wild Detectives comes along, we wrongly approach it as if it were a nicer Starbucks or a smaller Barnes & Noble. We miss the opportunity to put down our tablets and smartphones, and — dare I say it — discuss Bukowski with someone we just met.
Some coffeehouse are going without Wi-Fi and even banning glowing screens. It’s part of a trend, a pushback against those who camp out all day at the table in front of their laptops. In the process, it’s also fostering a greater sense of community. In 2014, NPR reported on a café in Vermont that removed its Wi-Fi and banned laptops. Business improved, and the owner reported the overall mood of his café became much friendlier. The Los Angeles Times also wrote about the campaign against Wi-Fi freeloaders. For many independent coffeehouses, the free Wi-Fi was originally offered to compete against Starbucks. But now, some people are going to coffeehouses because they don’t have Wi-Fi at home.
Wild Detectives decided to seek middle ground.
Starting last November, Wild Detectives opted to go without Wi-Fi on the weekends, creating two parallel dimensions, one place with Wi-Fi and one without. It presents an ideal case study to see how a wireless signal can effect such an establishment.
To investigate, I visited Wild Detectives on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. I sat at the bar. It was quiet, peaceful. I counted seven people total: three on laptops, one student with a textbook, a couple sitting on the padded bench near the front windows, and me. When I turned around again, there was another person on his laptop. Where did he come from? I swiveled a bit more to see if I had missed anyone hiding in the corner with a laptop. It was as if they just materialized out of thin air. I turned back to read my book. A third newly formed person approached the bar. He asked the woman behind the bar, “Hey, what’s the Wi-Fi password?” Out comes his laptop too.
At a certain point, the number of laptops made Wild Detectives look more like a co-working space than a bookstore. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t inspiring either.
I returned on Saturday, same time as before, to a Wild Detectives without Wi-Fi. The place was slightly more crowded. A relaxed vibe still pervaded, but it was more social. It wasn't just about the weekend. This Wild Detectives felt different than on previous weekends, back when the Wi-Fi ruled. A guy worked on a crossword puzzle. Friends sat in pairs drinking coffee and talking. More people were browsing the books. A couple sat across from each other at a small table, each reading a book. Two guys flipped through the record bin. One woman was breastfeeding her child.
Then, there was an eruption of visitors. Five people entered the bookstore, chattering and walking straight toward the books on the display table. One couple shared a laptop, but appeared uninterested in it, opting instead to talk with each other. By the time I finished my latte, the population swelled, a wonderful Wi-Fi-less enclave. Maybe I’m getting greedy, but I want more of this.
One woman asked Hipster Jesus (not his actual name but you’ll know him when you see him) about the Wi-Fi. He muttered a response. She returned to her table and lamented to her friend, “I don’t know what to do.”
Set the laptop aside. Surrender your tablet. Pocket the smartphone. For just an hour, maybe two, you don’t need it. You have friends and books, a light menu and heavy drinks. I even advocate staring blankly at a wall for a few minutes. Believe me, the experience is about the same as scrolling through social media. Take a deep breath and enjoy your weekend. Make it last longer by slowing down.
That’s the point, isn’t it? We’re continually trying to optimize our time and remain in a perpetual state of engagement. We’re checking our phone and then checking it again two seconds later. We don’t want to miss anything or be missed by anyone. It’s exhausting. For once, take the Wi-Fi away from me.
Dallas needs an offline, unplugged public house, a salon, and a home base for the literati, a place like Wild Detectives, where the community centers around book signings, poetry readings and backyard Shakespearean performances. None of this requires Wi-Fi, and we are better off for it.
If you need Wi-Fi and a place to work, co-working options exist throughout Dallas. These places cost about the same as a daylong coffee binge. Instead, other bookstores and meeting places should follow the lead of Wild Detectives. When owners decide they don’t have to provide a connection to the Internet, patrons can begin connecting with the simple pleasure of good books, crossword puzzles or perfect gin and tonics served by Hipster Jesus.
(Originally published in the Dallas Morning News: #Literary Dallas Special Feature 2016.)