Thursday, November 10, 2005

Off topic: Lessons from Starbucks

The raw desolation of an empty Midwestern strip mall in the waning hours of the noon embodies the essence of the American suburbanite’s desperate existence. Outside the sun beats down on the endless empty parking lots, baking the soul out of both plants and people. Personality is eradicated. The neighborhood shops are generic big box chains. Another Walgreens. Another Pottery Barn. Another Kwiki Lube.

This is not a landscape meant for people. You can’t even walk from one store to the next. Instead, you get in your car, drive through a convoluted artery of dead pavement and cracked concrete and get out at your next capitalistic theme park destination. A sign blares at you “Yes, we have Mickey Mouse salt shakers! 50% off!”

You are not a human being to these stores. True fact: in suburbia, they model the cashiers’ stations after the queues used by the cattle industry. I’ve run the equations and calculated the break even point for adding another point of human contact. You are a source of income whose needs must be served to the minimum degree necessary for you to open your wallet.

Mile upon mile, the stores stretch in every direction. They speak a simple message, “You are here to be used. You’ll enjoy it because you know no better.” Wide eight lane streets with mini exits for Target and Walmart are packed with heavily armored SUV’s. In Middle America, it never was about community or being ecologically friendly. It has always been about surviving in a psychologically hostile wasteland.

Welcome to Big Business’s vision of the American Dream.

Recently, I was in the odd situation of having a spare hour to relax. As I drove around in circles for a good twenty minutes, it occurred to me that there is not a single location was built for satisfying this simple, basic human need. I could have headed off to the nearest King Soopers (a grocery store chain that demonstrates American’s rebellion against the most basic forums of intellectualism), but what good would that do me? Should I hang about in front of the mini-bank while I read a paper?

Finally I spotted a Starbucks and felt a wave of relief. Here was a place that I could catch a quick drink and doodle in my notebook for a short while.

As a snob and a humanist, Starbucks represents to me a derivative mockery of real culture. At some point in the past, there was a simple coffee shop with a community of patrons. The owner made the coffee. Rich aroma filled the air and comfortable jokes about the weather or the latest news were lazily exchanged. Little tables welcomed you to hang out for a moment and may even think a deep thought or two. Starbucks took that atmosphere, upped the caffeine, commercialized it, productized it, and turned it into a $1.5 billion a year business that is growing at 22% annually.

But it occurred to me as I sat at a table surrounded by the now iconic brown and green interior: “This is the best most people have.”

No wonder it is popular.

take care

PS: This one is for Ray and Zoombapup. Zoombapup wanted to see me rant. Ray, well...I just like talking with Ray about the midwest. :-)