What are we drinking and what does it say about who we are?
That’s the question Temple historian Bryant Simon contemplated one day five years ago while sitting in a Starbucks. And it’s one he addresses in his new book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (University of California Press, October 2009).
But, Everything but the Coffee is not just about Starbucks. It’s about what Starbucks’ success and recent downturn says about America, Americans and our search for meaning, community, justice and relevance in the 21st century.
For the book, Simon visited and revisited over 400 Starbucks in 10 countries — purposely dropping in on the same stores at different times of the day, positioning himself differently each time, at a table or near the counter. He invited linguists, branders, colorologists and teenagers to join him and “tell him what they saw” and once even surreptitiously ran off with a bag of Starbucks’ trash.
What he learned was that at its peak Starbucks thrived by giving Americans what they thought they wanted, which wasn’t coffee. It was predictability, class standing, a sense of community, more natural and authentic products, and a sense of themselves as caring and more benevolent individuals.
“You rent out space for work or a meeting or pay for a chair for twenty minutes of relaxation, or maybe you use it as a place to show off your good taste. Go to this place with art on the walls and jazz flowing out the speakers and you become sophisticated, arty, eco-friendly and cosmopolitan. But this isn’t necessarily who you are; this is an image you pay a premium to display,” said Simon.
According to Simon, Starbucks’ skyrocketing success demonstrates how deeply consumption has steeped into our lives—how much energy, emotion and time we invest in what we buy as a representation of who we are.
“As our sense of association and communalism have rolled back, buying has seeped in more and more aspects of daily life,” said Simon. “Starbucks used that retreat in public life to sell us what we want.”
And it worked for a while until it became all too common and Starbucks became just another coffee seller. “Now that Cosi and Panera look like Starbucks, it just doesn’t seem special. Even the company’s promises of doing good seemed to get spread thinner—especially when Ethiopian officials accused Starbucks of coffee colonialism,” he said.
But Simon is hopeful: “If the fundamental premise of the book is right—that Starbucks sells us back our desires, then the desires we have are the basis of a more just, more sane and a fairer kind of world. The success of Starbucks is, in essence, a plea for an older form of state action and everyday neighborhood involvement.”
“What we have to stop doing is believing that we can achieve what we want through buying—that will take more sustained work and analysis,” he said.