– Mark E. Smith

Occasionally I like to sit in the remodelled-barn-like atmosphere of Balzac’s, a (really the) coffehouse in the historic Distillery District. I like the clash of marble tabletops and intricate exposed armoured cable. (I have previously photographed their roaster.)

The problem is getting through the goddamned door. The following composite shows the inside and outside door handles.

Green doors with wrought-iron handles and hardware

On the right in the photo is the outside door, with a handle; a thumb latch; a sign reading PUSH DOOR (HARD!); and another twee little sign declaring, for some reason in French, POUSSEZ. This side of the door almost makes sense.

On the left in the photo is the inside door, where the whole thing breaks down. I like to sit upstairs in the mezzanine (the wall side is better, with its proximity to four power outlets), and, on every single visit in which I sat there, I have observed one or more people finding it initially impossible to leave the store.

The inside door has a tiny lock that can be overcome by a credit card; a sign declaring, for some reason in French, TIREZ; and another sign, exactly the size of the one outside but nonetheless invisible, reading PLEASE LIFT AND PULL. What you’re supposed to lift is a protruding metal tongue (invisibly narrow when you’re standing right in front of it), which in turn lifts the crossbar that sits in the latch on the other door. You are indeed expected to pull on this tiny, cold tongue to open the door, uncomfortably concentrating the full force necessary on a small square of one finger. None of the signs is at a standing adult’s eye level.

People cannot figure this out. This morning I saw two people in five minutes fail to operate the door. One had a facial expression resembling panic.

Balzac’s door does not work. A door must have a 100% success rate. If it opens in only one direction (usually outward, but this one, and all doors I used in Iceland, open inward), then the handle and signage must make it impossible to guess wrong. Balzac’s has preserved its ancient barnlike door hardware, no doubt out of a quaint desire for historical accuracy. But we don’t drive horses and buggies anymore and we don’t use doors like this anymore, either.

One more time: Balzac’s door does not work. It also fails any accessibility test, though, unaccountably, I have seen several wheelchair users and one blind man with guide dog in the restaurant. It simply fails the task of being a usable door through which customers often leave carrying spillable takeout drinks.

So: How do we fix this usability nightmare? Most likely we don’t, because a coffeeshop that labels its doors in a language used by 1.4% of Torontonians isn’t interested in usability. But let’s assume the question were sincerely posed.

  1. Replace the hardware on both sides with door handles that people will recognize as such. Really, just give up this historical frippery, which does nothing but lock customers into the store.
  2. An automatic opener must also be provided. (Indeed must. There’s certainly a power source handy. I can imagine that architectural bracing might be a problem.)
  3. If the existing hardware absolutely must be retained (clearly not the case, but that claim will inevitably be made), then:
    1. Remove the lock, paint it black or the same green as the door, finish it with a clearcoat, and reinstall. (It must become invisible.)
    2. Remove the tongue and crossbar (and only those), paint them yellow with clearcoat, and reinstall.
    3. Add a sign in upper- and lower-case English at eye level saying “To exit, lift yellow tab and pull door.” Use large type.

I am under no illusions that Balzac’s will ever sacrifice form for function. Nonetheless, I’m tired of watching people struggle with something this simple because of restaurateur vanity. Please do not make me relive the Eagles’ “Hotel California” once I finish my morning espresso.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.05.10 11:53. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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