9.2.10

CULTURE WARS. There is a Starbucks near the west campus, convenient for slipping away to work on papers and yet bingo back to the office for the next appointment. It offers an obstructed view of the Overland Route. In downtown DeKalb is The House Cafe, not so convenient for a slip away, but better as a hiding place, which offers a somewhat better view of the tracks. The business models of the two are different. Here's Reason's Greg Beato analyzing Starbucks.

Starbucks has always been most vital, most interesting, most revolutionary when at its most commercial.

Granted, not everyone thinks of the chain as radical. Take Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University. In his 2009 meditation on Starbucks, Everything But the Coffee, he offers the usual critiques of the company. It says it sells coffee, but it doesn’t. It says it’s a venue for conversation and civic discourse, but it isn’t. It sells overpriced coffee-like beverages and a safe, predictable, environment. It preys on needy, status-seeking consumers by offering them clean bathrooms, innovative products, and a soothing ambiance in myriad convenient locations. For Simon, Starbucks was designed to be an exclusive, elitist institution: When CEO Howard Schultz began adding locations in the late 1980s, he “made sure to put his stores in the direct path of lawyers and doctors, artists on trust funds and writers with day jobs as junk bond traders.”

If you’re thinking to yourself, damn, that’s totally unfair to writers with day jobs as unemployed writers, well, yes, that was Schultz’s evil scheme! He wanted to introduce fancy coffee to people who weren’t already drinking fancy coffee. So, Simon reports, “unlike an owner of one of the beat coffee shops in the 1950s, he didn’t set up in transitional neighborhoods or fringe places like, for instance, Chicago’s neobohemian Wicker Park.”

In the late 1980s, of course, there weren’t many cafés serving high-quality coffee anywhere. Coffee consumption per capita was at its lowest point since 1962, soft drinks had recently surpassed hot caffeine as the nation’s favorite beverage, and Coke was in the midst of a campaign advertising its utility as a breakfast drink. The few cafés that were selling espressos and capuccinos, however, were located precisely in places like Wicker Park.

In choosing to locate his outlets in busy downtown locations, Schultz was expanding the world of high-end coffee—diversifying it, in fact, by taking it beyond its insular, self-conscious subculture. The décor of his stores amplified this process. They had the clean and slick streamlining of a fast food restaurant but were more comfortably appointed. Instead of walls lined with old books, there were gleaming espresso machines for sale, packages of whole beans, ceramic cups. They felt a little like a Williams-Sonoma store crossed with an unusually tasteful airport lounge. They were cafés for people who would never set foot in a bohemian coffeehouse, people traditional coffeehouse entrepreneurs had completely ignored.

For less than the price of a Whopper, you could hang out in a sophisticated middlebrow lounge/office for hours on end. And they were popping up everywhere. Exclusive, elitist? Starbucks was exactly the opposite, introducing millions of people who didn’t know their arabica from their robusto to the pleasures of double espressos. Finally, good coffee had been liberated from the proprietary clutches of hipsters, campus intellectuals, and proto-foodies and shared with bank managers and real estate agents. In offices across America, it suddenly smelled like ’ffeine spirit.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a tasteful airport lounge. The mind boggles. But then, I miss the upstairs bar on the Peninsula 400.

The House, on the other hand, has the walls lined with books, and an undergraduate art show. I'll let readers decide: I'm of the campus, but probably would not be mistaken for a campus intellectual, at least in the sense I think Mr Beato intends it.

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