What’s so wrong with Starbucks?

starbucksI know many people around here who are not happy with Starbucks. They like to criticize it while still patronizing it. Well, I think Starbucks is the wrong target for the socially, culturally and aesthetically sensitive crowd. I don’t find much wrong with Starbucks, actually I like it.

Some people say it is expensive, but there are so many other overpriced indulgences in the world that cost much more. Plus, a simple solo espresso at Starbucks is actually dirt cheap.

Others say what’s wrong is that it is a chain. They criticize the concept of chainness itself. Yes, but wrong as it is, Starbucks’s chainness introduces it in more places in the US without actually forcing the local residents to buy it.

Still others blame Starbucks for opening stores in other countries (from Argentina to the Middle East and Hong Kong) and contaminating the pristine authenticity of their culture. But… In this case, why don’t we also stop exports of jeans, MacBooks and soccer? Also, it is interesting that Starbucks does not operate in Italy. It’s simple: it won’t survive there, probably because the local strong coffee house culture clashes with the one endorsed by Starbucks. But I don’t see why coffee house pluralism should be something wrong, if it can survive. We do allow for non-Americans to wear jeans and use the internet, after all.

And even if the country in question does have a local coffee house culture, let’s not forget that the custom of drinking coffee itself is already a globalization event, originating in an era we used to call colonialism. That custom spread around the world, adapted to local tastes and realities and fortuitousness. Nobody was there to say coffee should stay where it was discovered and cultivated. And the opposite is also true as Starbucks introduces fine European sophistry to the New World: Italians in the US think that the above mentioned solo espresso is the only coffee they can consume on American soil that is worthy of its name.

A well-known international Starbucks controversy is that it is too pervasive everywhere in the world, including in China’s Forbidden City. That’s unfortunately true. But it is obvious that Starbucks opened in that specific place to capture the tourists and their money. One can argue that tourists should not want to visit Starbucks when they are visiting the Forbidden City in the first place. But sadly they do, and that says more about the tourists themselves than about Starbucks. Blaming Starbucks is like shooting the pianist.

Why I like Starbucks:

Especially in the United States, it is difficult to find a place where you can be in an informal, relaxing atmosphere with other people, without actually having to know them beforehand or organize a meeting/get-together with them in advance. It is an informal space for social interaction that does not imply you have to spend (a lot of) money. And it is a great place to read a newspaper or get some work done, surrounded by nice music and maybe art on the walls.

Starbucks is about the only place where you can ask for and receive a fair trade coffee. This means a lot to me.

Starbucks creates a community. It has a bulletin board for announcements for local creative events and businesses.

Starbucks raises consciousness. It publishes the Good Sheet, has a Starbucks Shared Planet collaboration, talks social issues. Maybe all this has a hidden commercial agenda, but at least it provides a starting point and is a space for social engagement.

Well… there are also those who have developed the theory of the Starbucks-financial crisis syndrome. It maintains that the more Starbucks shops a country has, the more is it affected by the current financial crisis. Here is the explanation:

Having a significant Starbucks presence is a pretty significant indicator of the degree of connectedness to the form of highly caffeinated, free-spending capitalism that got us into this mess. It’s also a sign of a culture’s willingness to abandon traditional norms and ways of doing business (virtually all the countries in which Starbucks has established beachheads have their own venerable coffee-house traditions) in favor of fast-moving American ones. The fact that the company or its local licensee felt there was room for dozens of outlets where consumers would pony up lots of euros, liras, and rials for expensive drinks is also a pretty good indicator that excessive financial optimism had entered the bloodstream.

OK, I guess if we keep Starbucks within the American borders that solves the problem 🙂


6 responses to “What’s so wrong with Starbucks?

  1. I’m actually quite fond of Starbucks. Not just because of the coffee, which is not too bad, but more importantly as you have pointed out, but because it creates a nice social community. I think it’s unfortunate that many people tend to bash and frown upon Starbucks as a chain, when it really tends to show how popular and well received the chain is, I mean why else expand right?

    Nice read, I’m in the mood for some Starbucks now.

  2. OK, maybe I exaggerated a little bit in my apologia, but I think it is a good phenomenon for the USA (maybe not the world).

    And for the record, I don’t even drink coffee 🙂

  3. I agree with you totally; but I think Starbucks can give us insight into ourselves:

    Plus, I love big book chains like Barnes and Noble too!

  4. It remains to be seen if the insight is a positive or a negative vision of ourselves 🙂 Tentatively, I think it is positive.

  5. Roger Conner Jr

    Adam Tramantano said, “Plus, I love big book chains like Barnes and Noble too!”

    The situation regarding the big book selling chains is an interesting one indeed… it is possible that online book selling and even online book readings will at some point make the book seller, chain or not, obsolete.

    When the day comes that this happens, if it does, many of the same folks who now curse the big book selling chains will be bitterly complaining about the lose of them, and referring to those “good old days” when a person could go into one store and pick up any of thousands of books and actually look at them and read them right there in person!”

    A book store, like a coffee shop, or tea house, or for that matter a hashish shop in many nations, has a social function that in many cases far exceeds the purely mercantile function. To the credit of Starbucks, they have been willing to support the social/cultural function as well as the commercial side. I think Barnes and Noble and the other big chain book sellers should be very alert to do the same, with events, readings, poetry readings, possibly in store literature classes and discussions and other activities to give the buyer a reason to buy instead of just logging on the computer and ordering online.

    The problem is that many of the big bookstore operators also operate the big online Websites selling books online, so if doing away with brick and mortar book stores if using the internet as the sales network is more profitable.

    We may be due to create some very special, small local bookstores again, a “back to the future” retroactive step that may actually be profitable in the years ahead.

    Roger Conner Jr.

  6. I hope the bookstore – even if it’s a chain – never disappears and I am almost sure it won’t. People do need a tactile contact with books as much as they need to scan them visually to get interested in them. And books are not just source of information, but they are also knowledge and shared experience. Happy to report my local Barnes & Noble organize all sorts of community events, even though it has its website. I personally visit them at least once a week. Thanks for your note!

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