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When the office is a coffee shop, it’s a different buzz

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Formerly employed at a hedge fund, Antony Seeff, 25, has discovered he prefers designing his new social networking site at his local Starbucks more than at home. (Photo by Jill Colvin/CNS)

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Doug Lange, 51, has been running his online business from the same Starbucks in New York for the past year. He usually spends four to six hours a day working from his favorite spot. (Photo by Jill Colvin/CNS)

Antony Seeff, 25, sits with his MacBook and BlackBerry in a Starbucks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It’s a Friday morning, and the location’s already buzzing with workers tapping at keyboards and scrawling on notepads as a line of customers snakes to the door.

“Only in a recession are there this many people in a Starbucks at 11 o’clock,” Seeff says with a smile, taking a break from the new social media site he’s designing after losing his job at a hedge fund earlier this year.

Despite Starbucks’ reputation for $4 Frappuccinos and overpriced pastries, employees and regulars there and at other Wi-Fi hot spots have noticed something unexpected: Branches are actually busier since the recession began. And while the growing legions of laid-off workers like Seeff who’ve turned to freelancing and entrepreneurship because of the crash are not the only ones crowding tables and hogging chairs, cafes have become prime office space, providing normalcy and a sense of community—all for the price of a coffee, or less.

Even before the economic downturn, the nation’s independent workforce was growing, with more than 10 million independent contractors, consultants and freelancers in February 2005, according to Steve Hipple of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in recent months, their numbers have soared, with Web sites such as oDesk, which matches employees with independent contractors, reporting an increase of 450 percent.

“Coffee shops are literally packed,” says Paul Benedetto, 40, a Seattle-based freelance accountant who left his corporate position for self-employment last year. While he always brings his computer along on caffeine trips just in case he finds an available seat, it’s so crowded that he’s usually forced to take his drink to go.

Baristas say it’s not unusual to watch workers come in with laptops in the morning, set up shop and spend entire days typing, taking phone calls and holding meetings in their stores. By late afternoon, tables are littered with empty cups and discarded food wrappers as workers pack up and move on.

While numbers vary by location, most estimate an increase of 15 to 30 percent.

Though working from home may be cheaper, psychologists say that for laid-off workers confronting a massive lifestyle change, rebuilding a routine and finding ways to be around others can be extremely beneficial.

“Maintaining a sense of structure and routine is crucial,” says Ethan Seidman, a licensed psychologist and clinical instructor at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., who deals frequently with those who’ve lost their jobs.

“It just got so claustrophobic,” says Seeff, describing the days he spent working from home before venturing down the block. “It’s depressing spending the whole day in your apartment,” he says. “You need to see people and get out.”

Veterans of the coffee-shop-office lifestyle tend to choose one or two cafes based on proximity or furniture and return again and again, forming bonds with those with whom they share their workplace. (Most also have a favorite table and can become highly protective of their chosen spot.)

“The whole problem with the Internet is people’s lack of communities and interactions,” says Doug Lange, 51, who’s been running his online business from the same coffee shop in New York City nearly every day for the past year. “Starbucks has become a community.”

Before the days of Wi-Fi, he says, he would “sit inside like a vegetable.” Now he lounges comfortably for four to six hours a day, in gray woolen socks and a white T-shirt, on a red velveteen sofa behind a table stocked with his laptop, newspaper, phones, headsets and notebooks.

While he and other regulars at cafes across the country don’t typically consider themselves close friends, they nod hello, stop to chat and are ready to offer advice when asked.

Some, including Lange, have also made business contacts from random encounters.

“I feel as if this is my office,” explains Rick Eisenberg, a public relations specialist who has been working out of coffee shops for about 10 years and comes to the same Starbucks, another location on the Upper West Side, “just about every day.”

“Isolation is not good for anyone, not good for me,” he says. “I just like to know that when I walk out the door and come here, maybe there will be some type of adventure.”

Just then, Eisenberg sees Randy Schein, an actor and business owner who works from the same branch two to three times a week. Eisenberg waves at his “office partner,” who stops by for a brief chat. The two have collaborated on projects in the past.

Sociologists say this type of interaction is important. “People need to feel that they’re part of larger communities,” says Penny Gurstein, a professor at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia who wrote a book about the then emerging world of “telework” in 2001.

These cafe “workistas” also say that being out and about helps them stay focused on their projects when they have little other supervision.

Natasha Levitan, 32, a multimedia producer in San Jose, Calif., who usually alternates between cafes Bar Code and Crema, has been freelancing for about five years. She says that being surrounded by others provides the social pressure needed to keep her on task.

“If you take your eye away from the computer, you can see other people who are concentrating on their own work, so it makes you go back to yours,” she explains.

These social cues are one reason it’s so important to establish a clear separation between home and work, says Illinois Institute of Technology sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng, author of “Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life.” The simple process of getting up, getting dressed and traveling to a social environment can serve as a trigger, telling the brain that it’s time to produce.

“It’s sort of channeling the sociability of the environment to help you transition into that work frame of mind and to be able to sustain that through the day,” she explains.

But just because these shops are buzzing doesn’t mean they’re profiting from their popularity. At Starbucks, for instance, domestic sales have slumped, down an additional 10 percent in its last fiscal quarter, and the company says it will close more than 900 stores.

That’s in part because, even if they’re there all day, workistas report purchasing only one or two drinks per visit and often benefit from free or discounted refills, not to mention Internet connections. Some customers have also developed elaborate strategies for spending as little as they can at the counter.

One Starbucks barista, who would not give her name for fear of losing her job, describes how some order single espresso shots and add lots of milk, creating knockoff lattes for dollars less. Others buy only a tea bag—cheaper than a cup—or bring one and just ask for hot water. Some spend the day consuming free samples of food and drinks. The chain has a “Just say yes” policy, the barista says.

While some companies have imposed minimum ordering rules and even covered up power outlets to curb this sort of straggling, others, including Starbucks, have thus far refused to do so. “It’s clear Starbucks’ company has the attitude that it’s OK,” says Lange, who orders a single tea or latte or doesn’t bother at all, bringing a cheaper cup of joe in from the street. But he pays for Internet access every day.

“The place is expensive,” he says. “I don’t feel bad.”

E-mail: jc2352@columbia.edu