World-Famous Linux Nest to Close (Sadly)
2000-01-28 19:17:45

Weird Linux
I live in a tiny, mysterious third-world country that is very far away and filled with meat golems. It is called 'Colorado'.
-- Tjames Madison


For the past five-odd years, WAN/LAN consultant Richard Couture has operated the CoffeeNet, a 100% Linux-based Internet cafe, at 744 Harrison near Third Street, San Francisco. Today is its last day of operation at the current location. (If you want to visit, do so before today's 2 PM closing time.)

In 1995, when Richard decided to build The CoffeeNet, he made a number of choices that seemed bold by prevailing standards: It was based on a custom Linux distribution developed by Richard and his friend Michael Nelson, coordinated via NFS and NIS+, running on commodity Pentium X workstations. The business was entirely self-funded with no outside capital.

Unlike several would-be competitors -- some venture-capital funded, such as the now-bankrupt Cyberworld cafe -- Richard's operation has not attempted to sell Internet access: The business model has been to offer a pleasant restaurant experience, where Internet access is an amenity, rather than the core of the business. Basing that amenity on Richard and Michael's rock-solid but average-user-friendly Linux distribution has meant no need for technical staff and no machine downtime: The systems run themselves.

Cyberworld's owners, when Richard paid them a courtesy call in 1998, clearly felt that Richard was an amateur whom they were going to bury, receiving him with barely-concealed contempt: After all, they felt, he wasn't smart enough to base his operation around MS Windows NT, to charge an hourly rate, or keep staff on-hand to rebuild and debug software.

Within a year, Cyberworld lost several million dollars and went out of business. One of their last acts was to ask if Richard could accomodate some of their customers who had rented Cyberworld for parties. Richard, always gracious, said "Of course."

Over the last five years at 744 Harrison, Richard's building has been an incubator and home for a significant portion of the Bay Area's Linux and free-software community. Windows Refund Day and the Silicon Valley Tea Party were planned there. CABAL, Bay Area Debian, BayLinuxChix, the Python group BayPIGgies, SFpcUG Linux SIG, and City College of San Francisco LUG have met there. The open-source publicity firm Electric Lichen, LLC (now part of VA Linux Systems) was based there. The Internet hosting operation LinuxCabal is there. And Linux community activist and one-time WAN/LAN consultant Rick Moen lives there (as does Richard, himself).

Richard Stallman has spoken there. Dale Sheetz and Joey Hess of the Debian project, Python author Guido van Rossum, and Marc Ewing of Red Hat Software, Inc., ditto. Two local ISPs and a number of other local businesses hold regular meetings and events, there.

And, throughout all of those events, members of the general public find to their surprise that they're using Linux, and liking it. The CoffeeNet has always been Exhibit A used to refute FUD assertions that Linux is too difficult for "average users": Hundreds of regular people off the street come in every day, and use the public machines with no problems and no training whatsoever.

The CoffeeNet is closing today because Richard is preparing to find and move to a new building, elsewhere in San Francisco. It's very likely that he will reopen The CoffeeNet in some form at the new location, because he enjoys giving Internet access to the public, and support to the free-software community.

Ordinarily, you could check out The CoffeeNet's on-line presence at Since Thursday at 6 PM, however, one of the two sDSL lines serving 744 Harrison has been cut (thank you, PacBell!), cutting off numerous Internet hosts, including Richard's, The CoffeeNet's, and mine. Some hosts on the other sDSL line are also difficult to reach, because of dependencies on the unreachable hosts' DNS. There is not yet an estimated time for restored service, as the breakage hasn't yet been found.