OPINION: A coffee shop is not a library.

Much has been said against students staying for prolonged hours studying on coffee shops. We tackle — do these students even have the right to stay for long hours with their tables?

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You really wanted to have a cup of espresso at your favorite coffee shop. It is a hot and humid day, and perhaps, you wanted to stay inside the coffee shop for a little while, sipping its cooling frappe, savoring the quiet surroundings.

You arrive at the coffee shop, only to be beholden to a sight that most of us dread — there are no seats. You see students, with empty cups, expecting them to leave in a short while, but then, as they turn the pages of their books on their tables, it seems that they will be warming their seats for more hours. As they type in their laptops, you get to realize that no seat will be vacant anytime soon.

Are you frustrated? Perhaps.

Should they leave? No.

First, let us start with the basics. A coffee shop is an establishment where you buy and drink coffee while a library is where one borrows and reads books. Their functions seems to be properly delineated; however, it is not as simple as that. To say that a coffee shop is restricted for all things related to coffee is restrictively myopic.

We ask: can’t we chat in coffee shops? Can’t we use our phones in coffee shops? Are we ONLY allowed to drink in coffee shops and nothing else? Businesses can serve multiple functions. Businesses can have multiple product and service offerings. And yes, for most coffee shops, one can study inside their premises.

Second, we look at the stakeholders, and on how they are benefited or perhaps irked by coffee shops becoming study hubs.

For the students:

We have the students — the oh so studious students — who become, according to research, more productive in coffee shops. Well, a study from the University of Illinois shows that people are more productive when exposed to ambient sounds of 70 decibels, similar to those of coffee shops. Mental effort is just contagious, and coffee shop is indeed the modern hub of hyperactive people. Seeing people do more is a great way of boosting your productivity, too. Surround yourself with people working hard, and somehow, you’ll get motivated to work hard as well. Plus, you know, great coffee is readily available, and caffeine boosts our ability to learn.

For the coffee shop owners:

Then, we have the coffee shop owners, who are doing their own business. Table-hogging would necessarily limit the number of customers they can serve, and perhaps, it may cause a decline on their profits. Or is it?

A lot of coffee shops have already capitalized on the concept of coffee shops as study places and productivity hubs, and this has been largely seen as profitable. Books and Beans Cafe, Cool Beans Library Cafe, and Coffee Project have all marketed themselves as such. On the extreme end of the scale, for instance, Diligence Cafe allows you to stay overnight for a fixed rate, advertising themselves as offering free wifi, unlimited coffee, and napping services, and it has consistently branded itself as a student-friendly place in Quezon City.

In the end, it all boils down to how coffee shops brand themselves. After all, as business owners, coffee shop owners are free to set their policies. Wi-fi hotspots on coffee shops necessarily attract students, and turning wi-fi off would bring a more social, talkative, and vibrant crowd, shunning freelancers and students. Coffee shops established near universities are expected to house more students than those in commercial areas. Moreover, if you see electrical outlets near tables, that means that the coffee shop is open for productivity.

Can coffee shops set limits? Of course. For some coffee shops, they explicitly post on their walls that table-hogging is discouraged. Some baristas politely ask patrons to leave if they have stayed for a long period of time without buying coffee. These are business decisions that coffee shop owners are free to make. However, it is important to take note that the student population is a substantial market, especially with a population that is skewed to the youth, and it is one of the market segments who consumes consistent liters of coffee.

For the casual drinkers:

We always have the liberty to pick a coffee shop that is not frequented by students. Does it mean we always have to be at the losing end, that we always have to adjust? Perhaps, yes. However, we need to recognize that everyone adjusts. No one can arrogate herself as entitled to a seat in a coffee shop because, ultimately, it will all boil down to the coffee shop management whether it has mechanisms to clear up spaces or its main selling point as a coffee shop is that patrons can stay for hours. This applies not just to the casual drinkers, but also for the student, who may also find no seat for him to study inside the coffee shop. In the end, coffee shops mostly operate on a “first come, first served” basis, and if you dislike how a particular coffee shop operates, perhaps it is time to find an alternative.

We have to realize that coffee shops, and the food service industry in general, have evolved from just providing food to likewise providing amenities and services, which customers can avail. Some libraries now have coffee shops inside. Some coffee shops now have books inside. We can’t limit places to serve only one purpose.

We have to recognize that restaurants and coffee shops alike now capitalize on ambiance. Aside from food quality, service and ambiance are now primary considerations by customers. In pricing food and beverage items, therefore, it is common practice to include the indirect costs of providing a good ambiance. In a sense, when someone purchases a drink a from a coffee shop, the customer does not only pay for the drink, but that customer likewise pays for the right to enjoy the ambiance within the limits imposed by management. Legally speaking, a contract of sale, being a reciprocal obligation, entitles the coffee shop to the price and the paying customer to enjoying the drink and the ambiance. Absent any limit imposed by the management, then a customer may stay all he wants.

Three exceptions come in to mind, although, as a disclaimer, this is devoid of legal basis:

  1. The management has already set limits (i.e., time limits, restrictions on what one can do and not do) on enjoyment of the ambiance and such is made known to the customer. In such a way, the contract of sale is perfected with consent both as to the cause and the limited consideration of the contract.
  2. The purchasing customer has seen that he cannot take any seat as it is all already occupied. When each customer have equal rights, qui prior est tempore, potior est jure. The succeeding customer cannot oust a customer because their rights are equal and not superior to each other.
  3. One is not a customer. Having purchased nothing from the coffee shop, one cannot be considered a customer and is not entitled to any convenience from the coffee shop.

Proportionality of the price of order to length of stay has been an issue. Others opine that a small muffin gives you less of an entitlement as that of a person who can buy a large cup of coffee and a slice of cake. This, I fear, smacks of elitism. Customers are given equal footing and should be treated equally, unless it is management policy to provide additional perks for higher-priced items. In the absence of such distinction, who are we, customers, to distinguish?

Last pleas to students:

To the students occupying coffee shops, exercise a little courtesy.

First, do not bring out your entire study materials all at once and flatlay them across three tables. Do not deprive other people of the use of the other tables just because your bookstand, your notes, and your pencil case are already placed there. Share a table.

Second, do not have a meal out and leave your items behind. This is abuse of coffee shop policy. If you are hungry, buy a sandwich or a cake inside the coffee shop. Do not leave your bags and books, leave, and come back after one hour.

Third, refrain from loud group discussions in coffee shops. Extend sensitivity to your fellow coffee shop patrons.

Fourth, consider studying during non-peak hours of coffee shops.

Courtesy is two-way. The non-students should be courteous to students; the students should likewise be courteous to non-students.

Final note:

A coffee shop is not a library, yes, but that does not prohibit anyone from studying in coffee shops unless it is a business policy. Ultimately, this is a business decision of the owner — as we enter his private enterprise, we abide by his lawful rules in his premises. What we can do, as patrons, studying or non-studying, is to observe courtesy to one another.