Making Providence “Better Off” in the Digital Age

better“I think that creating space to pursue art and entrepreneurship is the most important thing you can do.” Sitting across from me is Brandon Lane, owner of Better Off, a local business situated on the West Side of Providence. It’s a chilly Monday night at 168 Broadway, and as the sky dims the city comes alive outside with lights and colors.

The first thing Lane did to welcome me to his urban creative space, Better Off, was invite me to put on a vinyl record — but to not just pick one out. He wanted to me experience a process. Once I chose an album, Classics by Ratatat, he showed me how to load it onto the turntable and play it. There’s a certain novelty to that experience, learning something new while feeling as if you’re taking a step back in time … and the record player isn’t the only instance of that experience. From operational typewriters to Polaroid cameras, old-school devices fill Lane’s studio.

Lane, a teacher of entrepreneurship at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met School), is a strong advocate of turning problems into opportunities, an example of which is his own business. “We’ve integrated digital into our lives without enough dialogue or discussion around it,” he said. “It’s not to say we have too much digital, we just haven’t thought about when and how we want to be digital.” He pointed out that for many of us, our default mode is just digital and almost nothing else.

“How do we carve out and create a space for slowness, for balance and for thinking about how to navigate the digital world? A lot of people, when they want to engage with a slower world and more balance they go on a nature retreat, or they go into the woods and they go camping. But 98% of our time is spent in urban environments.”

It leads to the question he next asked: “How do we meet people where they’re at?” With the help of business partner and graphic designer Devan Durante, Better Off was created to start that conversation, as well as give people things to do that aren’t just creative, fun and engaging, but also help them learn to balance their digital habits.

When asked about his choice in decor, Lane explained that everything at Better Off is purposeful rather than ornamental. “You can call them vintage; they are old,” Lane admits. “But more importantly than old or vintage, they’re functioning tools for creation, and they’re slow-tech tools. The stuff in here is old because it does one thing at a time. A lot of it is cool by nature because of the design of it, and because it’s nostalgic, because it brings people back… We use those not as cool objects, but as deliberate objects to get a job done.”

Aside from technology that most people today would consider outdated, the space is adorned with art of various mediums, including paint, photography and paper collages, all created by the people who come to Better Off. One particular item I became interested in was a table that was, as described, “a marrying of art and function.” Created by a RISD artist, the table was built with just enough room for a standard meal to discourage people from using their phones at dinner.

“There is deep value in a tangible artifact,” Lane says. To illustrate, he tells a story: When you’re at a coffee shop with a book, people are more likely to ask what you’re reading. When you’re on a digital device like a phone or tablet, nobody asks what you’re doing or who you’re talking to. Having a physical object in your hands makes you approachable and connectable — and it makes people curious.

“The people who come in here are curious people,” he continues. “No matter who comes in here, one of the questions that we usually get is, ‘What are you?’ And one way to answer that question is to say we’re a non-digital space. That’s what we are. But I think the more important question is, ‘Why are you?’ We’re here to gather people, get them thinking about the present moment, the value of human connection, and the idea that maybe our digital devices are distracting us from the lives that we’re living.”

For people who want to experience more balance and slowness in their lives, many activities at Better Off are open to drop-ins. Recurring events include Creative Pause, a guided meditation followed by a creative exercise, and Future Fridays, a discussion group focused on the world of tomorrow. For those who want to be more involved, they can enroll in the Creative Gym, a 4-week program of group workshops, take-home projects and access to the space.

We continued to talk until after the last song on the record faded out. Lane’s refreshing outlook on life and technology, along with his stories and anecdotes, are best summed up with his closing quote: “I’m not trying to save a business,” he explained. “I’m not trying to revive, say, film photography. It’s bigger, it’s different than that. It’s more about just getting people together.”

Better Off is located at 168 Broadway, Providence. werebetteroff.com

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