I didn’t know, when I first made my reservation for a private space designed by the Breather, just how much I would end up needing it.
The new app functions like Uber for remote workers, offering on-demand privacy for contractors on the move. I normally work from home, and by midafternoon on the day I tested Breather, the dogs were going crazy, the noise of construction in the apartment next door was intolerable, and my wife was having an involved phone conversation with a lawyer. I fled for Soho with all due haste.
At first I had considered renting a room in Flatiron, but someone beat me to it, as I saw on the website’s scheduling page (the app is available for the iPhone, with an Android version forthcoming). Anyway, I arrived in the appointed neighborhood—convenient for all your Crate & Barrel or Urban Outfitter needs—and found the building where I’d be spending the hours of 2 to 4pm in blissful isolation. Security didn’t bat an eye as I breezed in.
The door to the individual suite itself, on the 8th floor, bore the friendly Breather logo of a pine tree and was fitted with a security code panel. Drat: I knew I’d forgotten something. After a minute or two I was able to officially check in via Breather’s mobile site and received a numeric password that would change as soon as my time was up. Beyond the threshold lay a cozy room with a conference table, chairs, writing utensils, paper, a full-length mirror, a massive whiteboard, an iPhone charger, potted plants, colorful coffee table books, plenty of outlets, and a jar of somewhat stale Tootsie Rolls. Also, there was a yoga mat. The windows allowed a view of NYU’s purple tennis courts.
A helpful poster explained the amenities and rules—as well as how to avoid getting locked out if you had to use the restroom—and imparted the Wi-Fi password, “peaceandquiet.” Screw peace and quiet: I opened my laptop and put on some earsplitting My Bloody Valentine. Hey, it was up to me, right? I wasn’t expecting anyone to join me, though inviting co-workers through the service is quite simple. “Very nice,” I thought, “but at $25 per hour, it’s almost too good to be true.”
I called up Julien Smith, Breather’s CEO, to grill him about some of the sordid ideas that had popped into my head. First of all, though, I told him I was sitting in his Soho office, basking in the room-sized freedom, and asked where the idea for Breather came from. “I’ve been obsessed with private space for a long time,” he said. He told me he was currently walking the streets of San Francisco, killing time before a meeting at Twitter HQ. “And where can I take this call? Nowhere. I just want to sit down,” he admitted.
Smith’s interest in quiet and meditation—breaking from the usual stressors, Starbucks included (which he considers his main competitor)—led directly to the self-serve, multipurpose oasis I was enjoying. Breather began in Montreal, just launched here in New York, and San Francisco is next. But across all their locations, a certain aesthetic remains consistent. “Breather has a look and feel,” Smith said, a simple, pleasing aura that contributes to the “high-trust experience.” He wants users to open doors and have a sense of familiar comfort, even if they haven’t been to a particular room before. Admittedly, I felt feel instantly at ease when I walked into that room.
But it’s not all calming colors and easy vibes: I had to start asking the inherently sleazy questions. Smith said the spaces are mostly used to get work done, but given that they include plush furniture, I wondered if the flophouse problem had occurred to him. Couldn’t anyone just book a Breather for a noon knee-trembler? “Of course I was worried,” Smith laughed. “I would have to be an idiot for it not to occur to me.”
The concern has come up a lot in interviews. “People think, ‘It’s so great, but someone’s going to take advantage. This is going to get fucked up somehow.’” The fact is, he stressed, nobody is having sex in these rooms. “It just doesn’t happen!” Perhaps the trust cuts both ways, or maybe the knowledge that cleaners will show up after your reservation and report any suspicious stains to the company keeps libidos in check. “This gets brought up,” Smith said, “but when you ask, ‘Well, would you abuse the space that way?’ everyone says, ‘Of course not!’”
Breather rooms come with a code of honor, it seems.
The threat of a lifetime ban could not fail to give even the most incorrigible lothario pause, but the space is, after all, founded on privacy, and discreet assignations (not to mention businesslike drug deals) are no doubt possible. And Smith assured me that there was no surveillance camera in my room. All the same, I couldn’t just pretend to check out and then overstay my welcome—the cleaners would still show up and ask if I wanted to pay to extend my stay. I was also told I couldn’t start broadcasting live pornography from the spot and expect to keep my account. My dreams of gaming the system were dashed: Breather is practically brand-new, but it’s also seamless, an ingenious way of passing off a virtual key between people who might need access to a communal in-between haven. “The service is almost obvious,” Smith concluded. “I believe I’m in the right place at the right time.”
Speaking of which, my two hours here are up, and while no one is actively kicking me out, I do feel obligated to scram. Back to the jungle I go.
Photo via Breather