Starbucks Nation

The Wall Street Journal July 24, 2008; Page A13

First, Starbucks said it was closing 600 of its stores. Then came the revolt of the Starbucks caffeinistas.

According to a report in this week’s Wall Street Journal by Janet Adamy and Anna Prior, people are begging Starbucks not to shut their favorite latte temple.

The facility manager of a financial systems company in New York City says, “We’re devastated.” She realizes there may be a Starbucks two blocks way, “but that’s probably two blocks too far.”

What is going on here? It can’t be about the coffee. Or maybe it is. The passions of taste are eternal. Proust swooned with the flavor of his madeleine: “at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me.” The original McDonald’s cheeseburger — the only thing in a bun I will order in a McDonald’s — is all about the pickle. The man who put the pickle in that cheeseburger was a Proustian genius.

Would people go this berserk if the local Dunkin’ Donuts closed? Or even a Whole Foods? The Save Our Starbucks campaigns remind me of the melodramas over the military base closings. As with the massive bases, some people say the little Starbucks is an “anchor” for their towns, attracting other businesses.

If that’s true, the commercial end is near for such presumably Starbuckian enclaves as Rancho Mirage, Southampton and Ridgewood, N.J. — all with a Starbucks on the hit list, presumably for not producing a minimum measure of cash flow. Or maybe too many of the people on Rancho Mirage’s golf courses or Southampton’s beaches don’t consider the mass-market Starbuckian ethos at one with their own. They are probably Starbucks refuseniks, walking past on principle.

[Starbucks Nation]
Chad Crowe

I realized Starbucks was doing something more important than sell coffee about eight years ago while driving down Route 4 in New Jersey, toward the George Washington Bridge, which as often as not is backed up two or three miles. Sagging under the weight of the world, I thought, I could really use a “Starbucks,” and of course, one appeared. It was on the site of a former gas station and had scrub grass coming out of the concrete parking lot…

The first thing I noticed inside the Route 4 Starbucks — like every other, decked in fancy coffee machines, sugar cookies and boxes of tazo tea — is that its patrons were mostly truck drivers. They were the kind of guys who probably spent their school years beating up what people think is a Starbucks customer…

BStanding in line at the Route 4 Starbucks, behind guys wearing Mets caps and Giants jackets, I thought: Can it be that our culture is weirdly rising on a tide of coffee?

A friend said the Starbucks bitter-enders reminded her of the protests against the closing of neighborhood Catholic churches. True. The stores are like secular chapels. No sign on the wall says you must be quiet, polite or contemplative, but people are. Ritual abounds. So too with the refusal to walk two blocks to a nearby Starbucks. Back in the glory days, when cities had a church every 10 blocks, no one would go to a church blocks away with the same service. They wanted their church. But they’d drop into a Catholic or Presbyterian Church anywhere in America, knowing the feeling would always be the same.

That there seems to be a Starbucks “everywhere” in America is by now a joke. And probably Starbucks did make the error of expanding beyond the reach of the management, losing quality control…

Starbucks is hardly unique. Lots of stores seem to be “everywhere” in America. You can go to a Walgreens in Portland, Ore., or in Portland, Maine, and know where the Advil is. When people say, “Is this a great country, or what?”, this commercial ubiquity is part of what they mean.

Go anywhere in America, and if the locals seem too intensely local, you can toodle into the omnipresent Starbucks, where they may not know your name but there’s respite from the strange town. Eating the best food in Austin or Miami is worth the trip, but sometimes all you want is that cheeseburger.

I don’t go to Starbucks that much. I don’t go to the Baptist church either. But I’m glad we’ve got one of both just about everywhere.

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