Toast, Tea, Cyberspace Served in Harvard Square

Learning entrepreneur joins info-highway bits with bites of goodies

YOU say you don't know the Internet from an order of toast? But you want to know what all the cyberwonks know? Stop in at the new Cybersmith, just off Harvard Square.

In this restaurant/bookstore/techie arcade, sit down in front of one of 48 computer stations or 40 other stations. A friendly ''technosmith'' (a compuwaiter) will bring you an order of toast and a cafe au lait from Smitty's On-Line Cafe. You can sip and chew while sampling and demystifying any of the on-line services like CompuServe, Prodigy, Delphi Internet, or America OnLine.

Or sit in a booth and explore the latest in CD Rom adventures.

Or put on virtual-reality headgear and battle nasty cyborgs, or have your face ''morphed'' (digitally imaged) at a FaceMorpher station, and then print the results on a T-shirt.

Or one can play computer games with hair-trigger responses.

And if you see a tall, white-haired man with a craggy face thoroughly enjoying himself in the crowd, meet Marshall Smith, the legendary entrepreneur who founded the Paperback Booksmith, Videosmith, and Learningsmith, all stores that in one way or another, he says, ''didn't sell products but sold learning categories.''

Cybersmith is his new baby, opened last Friday, but centuries in the making. ''This is a community,'' he says, ''a comfortable place to gather where all the new computer technologies are accessible to the general consumer, the person who wants to know how to explore the world of computers.''

Designer Patti Seitz was told by Mr. Smith to ''make it look new but really comfortable.'' It's for the hesitant, but also experienced cyberspace jockeys who want to explore the latest in computer applications. Smith says he spent a cool $1 million to build Cybersmith.

With a pleasing combination of computers encased in stained cherrywood on top of steel tables curled with strands of fiber optic lighting, the place is one part arcade and two parts digital smorgasbord. Even some of the lights are made with old CDs.

The color scheme is industrial-strength charcoal, black, and red. Some 30 smiling technosmiths drift around the oasis in gray shirts ready to guide you through anything you don't understand.

Located up a flight of stairs (but also with wheelchair access), Cybersmith is definitely a new retail concept combining learning, fun, and food. Is it the harbinger of a new kind of non-store created to serve a new need?

''It won't work,'' says a skeptical traditional-store owner down the street. ''Why pay for what you can do at home for free, especially in a university town where everybody has a computer already?''

Not too far from Cybersmith is the three-month-old Liberty Cafe, where food comes first but three computers are on-line. And there are 12 lines ready to connect your own laptop to Internet. ''This is a cafe first,'' says co-owner Andrew Sudbury, ''but we have a library, too, and people use the computer lines all the time.''

According to Gregg Cline, director of marketing at Business Research Group in Newton, Mass.: ''An estimated 50,000 people use the Internet in Cambridge. What Marshall Smith is doing is incorporating cyberspace as one component of the business, but clearly, he wants to make money off all the elements. If he doesn't succeed, we'll know pretty fast because the rents in Harvard Square are legendary.''

When Smith first learned about the Internet, he said his first question was, ''Where can I learn about it?'' The answer was, well, no where, because it isn't anywhere. ''That's why we created Cybersmith,'' he says, ''to offer a place where anybody can learn and understand about being part of an on-line community.''

Each station has a brochure with an easy to read overview of what you are about to do and why you should enjoy it. To join Smith's new community, you'll pay 17.5 cents a minute to go on-line at the computers ($10.50 an hour). You can use your credit card at each station.

At one of the 10 CD ROM booths, learn about sharks, the rain forest, take a trip on the Yukon Trail, or go along an Apollo mission. Up to 20 minutes of time here ($3.50) can be credited to the purchase of the CD ROM if you can't live without it.

Smith points to the wide stairway that leads up to Cybersmith where he says he wants to paint on the risers the following lines, explaining the spirt of Cybersmith: ''I hear and I forget.'' Next riser: ''I see and I remember.'' Next riser: ''I do and I understand.''

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