The Bourgeois Pig is the writers' hangout in Hollywood - a place where screenwriters, bloggers and journalists alike all sit for hours on their laptops. It's a great community: The crowd is lively but focused, and the cozy interior is a perfect environment for writing and collaborating. In December, L.A. Weekly named The Pig the No. 1 place to study in the city.
But perhaps that "is" should become "was." The Pig recently instituted a new WiFi policy: customers are allotted one hour of internet access per purchase, two hours if they spend more than $10. It's a computer-enforced system - the barista prints a password on receipt paper, which is entered into your browser and expires after an hour.
For regulars, the ever-changing, pig-themed passwords for the free WiFi used to be an inside joke. Not anymore. Now we're looking at serious expense, and a fair amount of hassle, just to work there - not just waiting in line every hour, but upwards of $20 a day for WiFi access. After all, the cheapest item on the menu, a single espresso, costs $2.16, or $3.16 with tip.
Pay-by-the-hour systems like this may be a part of a growing trend. Graffiti Sublime Coffee, a newly-opened, ultra-high-end cafe on 2nd and La Brea, has an identical policy.
The Pig, however, is not Graffiti Sublime. The music is great, but the food is cheap and plain, and the coffee is simple, just on the high-end of so-so.
Also unlike Graffiti Sublime, The Pig supports a quality community. Pound-for-pound, it's boasted one of the best naturally-occurring collections of creators in Los Angeles. Leonard Cohen was a regular.
And, yeah, I'm taking this personally. The Pig was a surrogate office and meeting place for students and artists who couldn't afford more than the price of a latte per day. It seems unfair to get angry at The Pig just because it's been so good to writers like me, but, well, there you have it.
Owner Andrew Chadsey defended the new policy as necessary for business. "If people want communism, I'm happy to sign up. But I operate within a capitalist system," he told me. "I can't get paid in backrubs."
But what about the loss of community?
"Community is the reason I do this. I'm not losing that," he responded. "This policy is not set in stone. It may turn out that two hours is a better amount of time."
Chadsey promises the new rules will make the Internet faster for paying customers, cut down on online security risks, and force out freeloaders who take up space.
"If someone comes in and orders a single espresso and sits all day, I can't accommodate that. We have people who drive from hours away to come here, and I want to make sure they have room to sit."
Before he instituted the policy, Chadsey claims that about 50 percent of the customers were freeloaders. Some people would refuse to buy anything at all.
"People complain, saying that since Starbucks offers free WiFi, so should I," he says. "But what they're missing is that this is precisely how Starbucks runs the mom and pop cafes out of business."
I recently sat and wrote at The Pig for two hours. I was distracted. The line was longer. I could swear the internet was actually slower. The crowd already seemed different. More tourists, less creative work being done. More bustle, less focus.
I spoke to customers who were angry about the policy, but also a few who agreed with it. Their reasoning was that cutting down on freeloaders would free up seats. But who will occupy those seats? It's a slippery slope. Another policy will add another small cost, and another small intrusion, and eventually nobody but tourists will be able to afford a visit to The Pig.
This is where things are headed in L.A. I know that. Everything comes with a fee, a flat tax. That parking spot is $3 an hour. That paper bag is 10 cents. Water? That will be $4. You must stamp your ticket every hour, slave.
I don't blame Chadsey personally. After talking to him for 30 minutes, I believe that he's motivated by necessity, not greed. His hand is forced.
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But this particular solution is dispiriting in the extreme. I'd rather the The Pig just raise its prices. Let us pay upfront. Let working groups and study groups sit and collaborate, even if one or two of them can't afford a cappuccino. It won't solve the problem, but it will treat the symptoms.
The warmth of a coffeeshop community is something that's good for us, something that makes people happy. If we're in the process of losing that - if it's become too costly to run an independent coffeehouse in LA - then the people need to know.
But, please don't nickel and dime us through the day - we can't handle parking enforcement in our coffee shops too. Even for Los Angeles, that's a step too far.