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September 15, 1996

Cybercafe will mix
coffee with keyboards

By Timothy C. Barmann

At 73, Ben Weiss has never surfed the Internet. But when he told his 29-year-old son, Pascal, about his idea to open a cybercafe, Pascal replied, "Papa, that's the way to go."

Weiss, an artist who began painting at age 12, has been a teacher, a landlord, a restaurant and night-club owner, and an inventor.

At an age when many are deep into retirement, he speaks with enthusiasm about his latest venture, Cafe Internet and Deli, slated to open this month in Providence. There, patrons will be able to explore cyberspace, send e-mail, and even beam their own picture to other Internet users from tiny video cameras.

Cybercafes are the latest rage among coffee houses. One list available on the World Wide Web (http://www.cyberiacafe.net/cyberia/guide/ccafe.htm) catalogs hundreds scattered across the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Providence's Cafe Internet will apparently be the second establishment in Rhode Island to mix coffee and keyboards. The first was Felicia's Coffee in East Greenwich, which added the Internet to its menu last November.

(Another cybercafe was to open this month in Providence on South Main Street, but the store is vacant and attempts to reach the owner were unsuccessful.)

"I don't care if we're the first or second," said Weiss. His main concern, he said, is to create an atmosphere that's "congenial and interesting -- and taking advantage of this crooked little house."

He's referring to the 200-year-old, two-story clapboard building which Weiss has owned for the past 40 years. Cafe Internet and Deli, and a coffee-to-go operation, will be on the first floor. Weiss lives in an apartment on the second.

The cafe is located on one of Providence's main java alleys -- at 231 Wickenden St. on the East Side. Right next door to Cafe Internet is Cafe Zog, and a couple doors the other direction is the Coffee Exchange. Coffee and sandwiches also are available at a host of other nearby shops.

Last week, the outside was getting a new paint job, and the inside, which has three fireplaces, was being refurbished. Weiss said he hopes to open by late September.

Then, customers will be able to sip and surf at one of eight computers connected to the Net. They'll pay minute-by-minute at a rate of $10 an hour.

Besides the Internet, Weiss has other plans for the cafe. It will be a rotating gallery for local artists, with his own artwork being displayed first. He said he hopes to "catch the flavor" of Montmartre, a section of Paris where artists congregate. He wants to hire mimes, too.

"We're going to do it up in a very flamboyant way."

First in R.I.

About 15 miles away in East Greenwich, Felicia Revens can boast that her coffee house, Felicia's Coffee, is the first in the state to offer the Internet to customers.

But that's not where she's focusing her attention. "I think of myself as 100 percent coffee, with access to the Internet as well," she said.

Although having the Internet has "definitely" helped business, her coffee house doesn't quite fit the profile of many cybercafes that are brimming with computers, video cameras, and virtual reality demonstrations. Felicia's has just one terminal with access to the Web, and there's no charge to use it. That seems to be working out fine for now -- no one seems to abuse it, she said, and there's rarely a wait to use the computer.

Like Weiss, Revens said she's not a cybernaut herself -- she doesn't have the time.

"People come up and ask me questions," she said. She tells them: "I can't even help you with that."

It's just as well, she said, because if she knew the answers, she could spend her whole day answering questions.

Welcome surfers

Michael Shields is happy to talk about the Internet with his patrons. He even lets some check their e-mail on his personal computer he keeps in the office of Juice -N- Java, a coffee house he owns on Block Island.

Shields said he spent two years researching cybercafes and making plans to add the Internet to his own place. But this summer, he decided that it wasn't such a good idea after all.

"People don't come out (to Block Island) to surf the Net, they come to surf the water," said Shields.

The turning point, he said came when he asked a vacationing executive from Apple Computer what he thought about installing computers and Net access. "He said, 'No, don't bother,'" Shields recalled. "What you've got going here is much better."

Shields said that in some ways, the idea of putting computers into coffee houses is sometimes at odds with the idea of a coffee house. Such establishments have a tradition of being places for people to relax, to meet eye to eye, to sip some mind-awakening beverages and to discuss life.

At some cybercafes he's visited, there are eyes glued to computer screens with little human interaction taking place.

Though he didn't think the Internet was appropriate for his cafe, Shields said he is very much a proponent of cybercafes, especially in urban areas where they seem to fulfill a need. They often serve to introduce people to the Internet, and to those already familiar, they offer convenient access.

That's seems to be the thinking of Weiss, who's opening up shop on the heavily traveled Wickenden Street.

Even in the face of lots of competition from other coffee shops, he remains confident that the Internet will help set him apart.

"I haven't run an unsuccessful business yet," he says.

What's going on-line?

Rhode Islanders are going on line by the thousands, according to a recent poll by the University of Rhode Island. We want to know what you are doing once you get there.

Tell us your story of how you have found the Internet useful and include details of how you've found something (or someone) you probably wouldn't have otherwise. Horror stories are welcome, too.

We'll print the most interesting responses in a future Cybertalk column, along with a chart of the local Internet providers and their rates. E-mail your stories to Cybertalk: tim@cybertalk.com.

Computer calendar

Tuesday -- The Boston Computer Society's Rhode Island PC Users Group will see a demonstration of the Providence Journal Company's new Web site, projo.com, slated to open on Oct. 1. The meeting is at 7 p.m. in the East Conference room of the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick. The meeting is free. A half-hour earlier, at 6:30, there will be a general discussion, along with a question-and-answer session.

For more information, contact Louis Stein at 739-2810, or by e-mail at louisstein@aol.com, or see the group's Web page at http://ids.net/~louissn/ribcs.html

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.