1/01/2004

The 'Bucks Stops Here?

Perhaps you’re sitting in Starbucks right now, at a small table all your own, reading this sentence. Me, I’ve been trying for years to avoid Starbucks. I’ve had more success with the actual boycott than with articulating to myself the reasoning behind it.

Not that I’m totally sans reasons. Resisting the pull of Starbucks seems like the responsible, if not the radical, thing to do, right? I mean, if I’m not enraged enough to smash the windows, I’m certainly treading on solid ethical ground when I boycott the chain that’s driven so many local coffee shops to an early demise. I think.

It helps that I don’t actually like the product. The high acidity of Starbucks blend tends to give me acid reflux; I learned this when my first employer out of college prided itself on making Starbucks its official break-room libation. However, if I could ever transcend the angst I attach to decadent non-book purchases such as espresso drinks, perhaps I’d change my mind. My sources inform me that the Starbucks latte is primo. At any rate, avoiding a business because you don’t like its product hardly constitutes a boycott, or warrants the sense of righteous right-thinking I feel every time I jaywalk across five lanes of rush-hour traffic to get to the regional coffee chain franchise on the other side of Connecticut Avenue.

I’d like to say that it’s Starbucks’ involvement in a generally corrupt, abusive, and, from a Marxist point-of-view, extremely uncool global coffee trade that keeps me at bay. But, with the modest Fair Trade programs outlined in fliers available at the registers, Starbucks turns out to be no more or less tainted than the neighborhood establishments that I favor, none of which serve Fair Trade coffee.

Certainly it’s not the way the chain treats its employees that pisses me off. Though slinging joe may not be the most spiritually remunerative occupation, I understand from friends of mine who have worn the green apron that the company offers even entry-level barristas enviable benefits, reasonably flexible scheduling, and upward mobility—three contract-sweeteners I’ve often stridently argued American business totally ignores in its dealings with its wage-slaves. And while we’re on the subject of my habitual complaints, my own observations suggest that Starbucks works aggressively to maintain a diverse staff—not simply in terms of ethnicity but also, as far as I can tell, in age, gender, sexual orientation, and place of residence. It’s true that the soul-sucking tedium of a register job often rouses my compassion for those behind the counter. But empathy has never stopped me from stopping at an Interstate Wendy’s, and Dave Thomas offers his workers far fewer benefits than does Starbucks.

Nor does the issue of coercion account for my animus. Though I increasingly feel it difficult to live a life uncompromised by corporate consumption, I don’t believe that people go to Starbucks because they have no choice. Au contraire, Americans in general suffer from too many choices, and the coffee racket is no exception. Coffee houses have never been more popular in the suburbs, exurbs, and dying cities where the silent majority reside. But the majority of patrons I see through the windows would never appear at St. Louis’ Meshuggah or Greenville, N.C.’s Percolator, or Arlingon, Va.’s Java Hut. Trust me. Outside of New York, what I register as deficiencies in the Starbucks phenomenon—Yuppie homogeneity, bland music, the sameness of all Starbucks , the whole bourgeois milieu--are experienced as virtues. People like the sameness, also intelligible as reliability or quality control. People like the bourgeoisance, because people are bourgeois, and don’t like being made to feel bad about it. And, frankly, those local competitors that manage to attract the Starbucks crowd, like St. Louis’ Kaldi’s Coffee, do so by outStarbucksing Starbucks, from the sponge-painted walls to the world music compilations to the overbearing Arabica.

A friend of mine, and fellow boycotter, used to work at Starbucks. While debating the merits of the company with his father, a successful advertising exec just emerging from the wreckage of a failed marriage, his Dad commented that Starbucks provided people like him with a neutral, quiet place to meet and talk, a forum for culture, however consumerized, and ad hoc community, albeit a peculiarly atomized one. And I have to admit, I’m for that. My mother, a brilliant and well-read woman, lives in a culturally conservative, temporarily Starbucks-less small-town. Kinston, NC offers few public cultural diversions. Nowhere is the New York Times available, as it is in nearly every Starbucks. If she could find stimulating conversation about art and literature there in (for her) pleasant surroundings, I say, let her drink Starbucks! Hell, I’d buy her her own franchise. Still, I could never bring myself to be its customer.

I’m tempted to conclude that I boycott and bitch about Starbucks out of sheer piety. In my generation, it’s axiomatic that to partake of the Great Satan’s coffee drinks is to renounce any pretense to dissent from the Way We Live Now.

But that wouldn’t be entirely honest of me.

In fact, I boycott Starbucks for the same reason I suspect WTO protesters pelt it with pebbles—for what it represents. In a world where power, like the wizard behind the curtain, presents itself as chimerical (i.e., you can’t even really name it, much less touch it, let alone fight it), the Starbucks window has, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay…let’s say, because of a certain fateful rock…become the closest tangible signifier of corporate hegemony. Perhaps because you can at least leave fingerprints on it, no one seems to notice its transparency, its insubstantiality as a symbol. And despite the fact that the corporation in question is probably much less objectively evil than many of those I avoid less studiously and pour more money into each year (e.g. ExxonMobil, AOL/TimeWarner, GlaxoSmithKline, RJR Nabisco and, for a time, PhillipMorris ), I can feel like a responsible consumer whenever I choose a mug of Brand X over the cup with the mermaid logo.

Coming Soon to Hot Face: "The House at the End of the World" and my review of "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones. We also cross our fingers about the impending return of actual postings about Hot Face, without whose adventures this site would not be possible