Cafe is pit stop on information highway

March 31, 1995|By Loretta Chilcoat | Loretta Chilcoat,Special to The Sun

London -- At Cyberia, the menu consists of coffee, croissants and the Internet.

This is the cafe where techno-junkies and cyberphobes alike can take a ride on the information highway -- all for a little more than the price of a cappuccino.

There is no poetry reciting here. Customers punch up bulletin boards, hurl digital flames and journey through cyberspace on the six computer terminals that line a glass wall.

And don't call for a waiter or waitress. Cyberhosts, in their all-black outfits and sharply cut hairstyles, roam the cafe ready .. to serve up a tarragon chicken sandwich or a quick lesson on the strange language of the Internet.

"Newsgroups are like virtual debating, IRC is immediate chatting with another computer, Telnet lets you log into a remote computer and Archie lets you research through computer databases," cyberhost Libby Hazell instructs a customer.

"Great," says John Garrett, a local councilman. "So, now what do I do?"

Cyberia's lure is simple: It provides a cafe culture for the 1990s, located on a side-street in Bloomsbury not far from where Virginia Woolf once presided over an intellectual round table. nTC Here, writer meets raver and intellectual discourse is enhanced by digital interfacing.

This is a place for the technically proficient, who are comfortable cruising the World Wide Web, and the technologically challenged for whom turning on a computer is as enjoyable as root canal.

"Part of this new Internet culture is meeting people, and that's what our cafe is all about," says Cyberia co-founder Gene Teare, a South Africa-born model turned entrepreneur. "We're trying to encourage people to communicate and we think the cafe is the ideal setting for interaction between people and technology."

"We knew this was a big investment, but we wanted to give people an inexpensive way to try it out," says Ms. Teare, who needed only six weeks to start up the operation with her business partner Eva Pascoe.

A relatively new concept, Cyberia is a first for Europe and there are plans to expand to France, Spain and New York. Before opening, Ms. Teare's husband Keith visited similar on-line cafes in San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif. Another one just opened in Boston.

"Out West, I saw computers stuck in corners away from the action of the cafe," Keith Teare says. "What we envisioned here was a more intimate setting with computers and people side by side."

The cafe is also doing its part to help the Internet shed its boys' club image.

"Men dominate the 'net," says Ms. Pascoe, a cognitive psychologist and computer programmer who is setting up a for-women-only database.

"We want to encourage women to become more active on the 'net because this technology will soon be a part of our everyday lives," Ms. Teare says. "On-line news groups which range from basic health care to abortion could be extremely beneficial to women. If they needed answers they would be able to get them at the click of a button."

Cyberia is a minimalist's delight: glowing orbs of light suspended from the ceiling, glass and steel tables are arrayed on scratched plank flooring, and exposed pipes and electrical lines dot the walls. A faint mix of blues and techno music plays in the background. There's more interfacing than face-to-face conversation in the cafe. The loudest noise comes from the clicking of keyboards.

"It kind of feels like a warehouse," says Kim Shuckra, a Boston native working in London.

It costs $4.50 for a half hour of on-line time and $3 for a cup of coffee. Sending electronic mail messages across the world comes free with the on-line time. But to receive messages, users can purchase a six-month e-mail account for $40.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the cafe was filled with a family of three scrolling through the Internet news groups, students furiously working the keys in an international chat, and an American tourist who kept asking for instructions for getting on-line.

There were even a couple of engineers poring over an Internet Road Map, shouting out: "We made a wrong turn. Go back! Go back!"

"We get a lot of American students coming in to check their e-mail and to talk with their friends in the States," Ms. Teare says. "But, in general, we get all types, from the curious to the professional. We even have music artists who download music into the computers. Basically, there's something for everyone."

The coffee is hot. The mood relaxed. And the cafe is so popular, that even U2 drummer Adam Clayton is a regular.

"It's a good idea," says Graham Watts, researching a trip to Amsterdam. "But it wouldn't work without the computers."

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