Save Your Starbucks? (Capitalist Absurdity of the Week)

Posted July 28, 2008

After reading an article in the NY Times and subsequent googling, I discovered a proliferation of local organizing efforts and blog campaigns to save some of the 600 stores Starbucks announced it is closing due to falling revenue.

How absurd?! The comedian Lewis Black has a brilliant routine where he puts forth that an undeniable sign of the end of the universe appeared to him in the form of two Starbucks DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET from one another. New Yorkers know the corner, St. Marks Place. He then joked that such a marketing strategy could only be geared to (“and I mean no harm by this” he says) a community of people with alzheimer’s. It certainly does suggest a civilization off its rails.

The local Starbucks in my neighborhood, with it’s pay-by-the-minute wifi service and $4 coffees, serves as a kind of ad hoc public (but all-too-private) house. There is a community of people who assume their tables every morning and work there for hours at their computers. I personally don’t know how they stand it- the ambience of these places is awful, what with the stupid videos playing on the flatscreens and dreadfully hip narcotizing ‘cafe’ music (for sale too!). It’d be hard to imagine places with less personality. But this ersatz community office stays packed, as it probably provides more services and better hours than the perpetually-downsized-and-underfunded local public library.

The commodification of daily life knows no bounds. How many local cafes, old bookstores, and colorful meeting places – businesses too, but it’s never the same – have been annihilated by the Starbucks/Borders/BarnesandNoble’s empire? What happens socially and psychologically to such neighborhoods and communities? What’s happening to our public libraries and other relatively non-commercial places of gathering and learning?

Now, the Times article quotes folks in Newark who are concerned that their Starbucks is really the only appealing place in the area, and raise the issue that a lot of the closings are happening in poorer, non-white neighborhoods. Anti-redlining campaigns are justified, but what kind of world is it where we are summoned to fight to preserve these awful entities? Where we – as in the “save YOUR Starbucks” slogan – actually identify with and take ownership of these beasts that eat away at us and our communities?

(Full Disclosure – While some appear addicted to the burnt grounds served by the Empire, I can’t stand the shit. And everytime I relent and enter a Starbucks I have to stand behind 8 people ordering an array of coffee drinks like double non-fat mocha frappachinos that take forever, while all I want is simply cup of – undrinkably charred – coffee. If “my” Starbucks is saved, I at least want two lines – simply coffee and whatever else, dammit!)


6 responses to “Save Your Starbucks? (Capitalist Absurdity of the Week)”

  1. Maeve66 Avatar

    Man, I don’t want to come off as Ms. Corporate CoffeeHouse here. And I don’t like Starbucks — though I did hear that under the pressure (FINALLY) of everywhere else in the world having free wifi except them and Borders, Starbucks has caved and will be offering two hours free — but… as for shared public space… until I was a senior in high school, there was NO cafe in Evanston, Illinois. There were Denny’s restaurants, which stood in for the Waffle House (and I totally agree with Isaac about the rite of passage aspects of this, though I think that the Waffle House occupies a slightly different niche, and the ubiquity of them DOES deserve attention — it’s really striking, in Georgia!), but they tended to be things you needed to drive to, so if you were a teenager without a car (which I was) and wanted somewhere to hang out and talk (which, much as I love and adore public libraries, is not allowed in them) there was almost nothing. Especially at night, when underage people couldn’t really find ANYWHERE to go, the birth of caf├ęs in the US was a plus, even if they’re small businesses. I mean, yeah, I prefer the small independent bookstore/cafe combos, or independent cafes. But they don’t exist everywhere. The Bay Area is full of them. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is not. Full disclosure: I am sitting in a Caribou right this second, using the free wifi and drinking tea.

    After the revolution, when we have co-operative coffeehouses, there’d better be good tea and communal wifi. PS — have you seen the early Onion article: “Starbucks Opens in Starbucks Bathroom”?

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.

  2. John B. Cannon Avatar
    John B. Cannon

    I was being sarcastic, but I think your post points to some important and serious issues – what you mention about the erosion of public space and services. I was thinking about the fact that at least two (unionized) grocery stores have recently closed in Oakland, to be replaced with a Trader Joes and a Whole Foods. I’m sure this has something to do with both gentrification and with lean production in the grocery industry, but also there’s a question of an economic downturn meaning that certain kinds of services may just be retracted from low-income areas.

  3. JohnM Avatar

    I think John B. Cannon is being sarcastic. (and my need to say so suggests how dense I am, no?)

    But there are positive examples of turning cracks in the capitalist edifice to progressive ends – like during the 70’s in the Bronx, when the utter abandonment by landlords/banks/capital of the area forced residents to craft there own solutions. A lot of the landlord-arsoned buildings were rebuilt by the residents/homeless themselves with money from the state; the residents and homeless then became cooperative ‘owners’ of the properties. However, most of these cooperatives were not given enough support and failed under the pressure of incentives for re-privatizing them or corruption of cooperative board members.

    But, couldn’t we demand that Starbucks completely turn over, with significant initial funding, locations it plans to close to a local and democratically organized cooperative. Heck, potential cooperators could even solicit the support of the “baristas” fighting against the bad wages and abusive schemes of Starbucks management. Worker-patron cafes.

    So, I hearby announce a counter-slogan – “Reconvert All Threatened Starbucks to Community-Labor-Controlled Awesome Public Cafe Houses Serving As Beacons In The Wilderness Lighting The Path To Our Socialist Future…Now!”

  4. John B. Cannon Avatar
    John B. Cannon

    We should really stop being sectarian towards the “Save Our Starbucks” movement and build it. This is just the beginning of how the economic downturn will force people to make more and more radical conclusions.

  5. Aimee England Avatar
    Aimee England

    Anyone who doesn’t want the corporate consumer culture, should join us in Hillsdale, we have two locally owned coffee shops one in the record (CD) store, and one that is more Christian leaning and more expensive in our downtown. It’s over 45 minutes and 50 miles to the closest mall.

  6. Isaac Avatar

    Down the street from my apartment in Atlanta, there are THREE Starbucks locations in a single parking lot (inside a Barnes & Noble, Kroger, and Target.) Another free-standing one is just a half-mile down the street.

    The first national demonstration I attended was a multi-issue weekend in April 2002. Saturday was an incredible, huge march for Palestine and against the “War on Terror.” Sunday was a much smaller gathering of the anti-globalization movement’s remnants at the IMF/World Bank headquarters. Well, with all the cliche stories of anarchists smashing Starbucks windows, wouldn’t you know there are TEN Starbucks within a three block radius of the IMF/WB!

    View Larger Map

    Here’s a list of other chain store closings. Who knew there were 105 “Piercing Pagodas” in this country, anyway? Of course, I am a bit of a hypocrite. Hanging out at 2am in one of Atlanta’s seemingly infinite Waffle House restaurants is a local teenage rite of passage (see the movie ATL, for example). There are several places with Waffle Houses right across the street and that’s never seemed the least bit ridiculous. True story: one of my main Waffle House companions is now a slate roofer, who ended up repairing the roof of the Waffle House CEO. Apparently the guy gets one cent per waffle sold… this may be mythology.