Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Starbucks and its small, caffeinated place in my heart

These days, not all the buzz about Starbucks comes from caffeine. The former CEO, Howard Schultz, returned to the company on Monday, making share price rise. Last January, they got named to Fortune's list of 100 best companies to work for, and in September, Michael Gates Gill wrote a book called "How Starbucks Saved My Life" chronicling how a sixty-something former ad exec (himself) got a job at Starbucks when he needed health insurance and quick cash. (Despite getting panned by Publisher's Weekly, the book is supposedly being made into a movie, possibly by Tom Hanks.) At the end of December, Slate noted that mom-and-pop coffee shops sometimes thrive right down the street or across the way from a Starbucks.

Next to Wal-Mart, Starbucks is one of those companies that people love to hate. Liberal-minded people who want to shop local and independent often feel guilty feeding the corporate America cash cow. There's also economic sense. In his series of books on wealth, David Bach tells people to think about their "latte factor" (the amount of cash they waste in a day on coffee and fast food) and save that money, noting that in the long run, it will make a massive difference.

My New Year's resolution last year was to buy from more independent, locally-owned small businesses. Except, of course, for Starbucks. Alison Lobron's recent piece in the Boston Globe was entitled "confessions of a Starbucks regular" - the use of the word 'confession' indicating that she has something to be ashamed of.

It struck a chord with me especially because she was clearly (I deduced from geographical details) talking about my former Starbucks at Shepherd Post (I don't know why it's called that, but it always said that on the receipt) on Mass. Ave., right up the street from the indie place Simon's.

There exist laughable articles and people suggesting that McDonald's is a threat to Starbucks, and that the world will come to an end if Starbucks markets to kids.

It has always shocked me that some suggest that we junkies could remove Starbucks from our lives without consequences. On some frigid mornings when I faced a one-hour commute last year, the prospect of a Starbucks stop was what propelled me out of my warm bed. In college, when the car I was driving broke down three kilometers (what's a mile?) from school, I drank an uber-chocolatey beverage while waiting for my dad to arrive. I have sunk into comfy chairs to grade papers I didn't want to grade and read books I didn't want to read. I once even encountered an old ex of my father's while reading Marx at Starbucks. (Yes, the irony is great.) In Europe, coffeehouses used to be called "penny universities". Now, ones in affluent suburban neighborhoods might be called "four dollar study halls". They create warm, welcoming (and even exclusive?) environments for people to do what they need to or want to do.

I will continue to buy children presents at Magic Bean and towards the end of my time in Cambridge, I eschewed Shaw's in favor of the Evergood Market. But Starbucks regulars won't quit Starbucks for the same reason that Obama supporters say "I voted for him because his rally moved me to tears." It's not logical, it's emotional.

Or as a wise friend once said, "Comic books will get you through times without food better than food will get you through times without comic books."


At 10:52 p.m., Blogger Dani B. said...

I think the answer to your moral dilemma is to move to Seattle so that way starbucks is a local buisiness.

In a similar vein you should support "local" business and get your coffee at dunkin donuts. They're brewed coffee is much better then starbucks though their espresso is lousy.

At 8:42 a.m., Anonymous J! said...

I think we should probably remember that the Starbucks 'experience' is about much more than simply coffee and/or tea; it's about being social, being seen, being relaxed ... and perhaps most of all, proving to ourselves and others that we have arrived. For many people, Starbucks, like Rolex and Rolls Royce, is a symbol for something much greater.

Excuse me while I sip my tea...


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