On Reading Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture

Not Starbucks (Bandung, Indonesia)

Not Starbucks (Bandung, Indonesia)

“How excited can people get about coffee and milk? Starbucks’s worldwide explosion was about more than coffee; it was about the way the company was selling it. Coffeehouses provided something society needed: a place to just be. But no one had any idea of how badly we needed it.” (p.51)

“The coffee wasn’t the point, the place was.” (p.92)

Despite my less than warm feelings towards Starbucks (I prefer local, personal cafes), I read a fascinating book about it recently called “Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture”. Published in 2007, the book is about the journey of Starbucks from a simple coffee company selling coffee for people to drink at home to the coffee empire it is today just a few decades later. The author is not a Starbucks lover or hater, and his perspective makes for a good, credible read.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is called “The Rise of the Mermaid” and describes the rise of Starbucks and the craze for coffee in North America. It describes how coffee was originally discovered, how coffeehouses were originally a creation of the Muslim world that later became popular in the West, and how coffee decreased in popularity in America as the quality of coffee declined. It details the stories of the roasters who were keen on bring the beauty of coffee back to popular consciousness, how the company that gave birth to Starbucks began, and how Starbucks we know today was born from CEO Schultz’s belief that adapting the culture of Italian cafes to an American context would create a profitable business. From there the book details the rise of Starbucks, and describes some of its successes to date.

The second part of the book is titled “Getting Steamed” and describes the debates around Starbucks from the negligible earnings of coffee growers (the milk costs more than the company pays its growers), the company’s relationship to its workers, the machinization of coffee making, the lack of resemblance the company’s products have to actual coffee, its colonization of cities worldwide, its predatorial tactics towards other coffee companies, and other topics that come to mind when you see the familiar green and white symbol.

What fascinated me about the book was how much discussions about place were a part of its explanation of how the company became so popular so quickly. As driving dependent suburbs became a more prominent part of our landscapes and public spaces became harder to find, Starbucks tried to position itself as the provider of the ‘third space” that was missing from cities and communities. (Interestingly enough, the inventor of the term “third space”, and the author of a book about the concept, never approved Starbucks’ use of the term. And according to Starbucked, as time went on Schultz claimed to have invented the concept himself). Beyond the third space idea, the book talks about how many communities vie to have a Starbucks relocate in their town, as the company opening a cafe is seen as a signal of economic vitality, though there is little causational evidence to back up such claims.

On a personal note, reading about the company’s connection to place led to a deeper conviction that truly public, non commercial spaces are needed in cities. Public libraries are an excellent example of such spaces (the Surrey City Centre Library for instance was designed to be the living room of the city), but we need to have a diversity of public spaces that offer choices to residents about where they want to congregate.

The second thing I took away from the book is that it is a not a neutral enterprise to build a city, and where values are not clearly articulated, that gap will be filled by companies/culture makers that may not hold the same values and concern for community that a municipality should. The book talks about how Starbucks tapped into people’s need for connection and closeness by claiming to meet that need, but municipalities should be able to meet these needs in less harmful ways.

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