“We buy things to say something about ourselves,” claims Bryant Simon in his book Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks. In these pages, he analyzes Starbucks’s rise from a small, independent location in Seattle to the global coffee giant of today. Simon dismantles the chain piece by piece in chapters with names like “Real Coffee,” “Predictability the Individual Way” and “Not-So-Green Cups.” Each discusses a specific attribute of Starbucks, analyzing its emotional appeal and detrimental impact. This careful dissection reveals that, despite our “hope to purchase our way to happiness and salvation,” Starbucks is just as calculated as any other corporate shill.
Among the many topics discussed, the way Starbucks caters to “the individual” caught my attention. Starbucks customers are people who think for themselves and know what they like. With IKEA-style furniture and natural tones of brown, green and red, Starbucks suggests independence from the mainstream (think McDonald’s-style sparsity and bold colors). Rather than settling for a cookie-cutter cup of BK Joe, you selected a more sophisticated drink. Walking down the street with one of their trademark white and green cups makes a statement about you: you know your coffee, and you have money to spend on such “luxuries”. The music Starbucks plays also contributes to this image: not obscure enough to turn off mainstream listeners but unique enough to suck them in. Choosing chill tunes by Bob Dylan or Coldplay, Starbucks sells the perception of taste. If you drink Starbucks, clearly you know your coffee and your music.
Starbucks has become as much a symbol of status as anything else, an accessory to a specific public image. If you drink Starbucks, maybe you listen to National Public Radio. You have liberal sensibilities, care about the earth and probably drive a sensible yet cool foreign car. These assumptions obviously fail frequently but, Simon argues, at the start of the 21st century, they were accurate enough to form this stereotype. You can access all of this – the perception of independence and social status – for the comparatively small price of an expensive cup of joe.
I have a confession to make: I go to Starbucks. I have a Starbucks card, which provides me with free wireless every day and free coffee on my birthday. I spent seven hours in a Starbucks last semester, furiously pounding out a final paper and sipping my Grande Americano (two extra shots and room for half-and-half). And yes, I have liberal sensibilities. I drive a Honda Accord. I care about global climate change and worker’s rights. And I like to think that I have eclectic, compelling musical taste. I hate to think that Starbucks has created a Frankenstein’s monster from my loves, perfectly molded to my young, urban tastes. But what do I do about this? Shun the white cups and earth tones, seek truly independent coffee houses and ignore my obvious ensnarement by “the man?” I won’t delude myself; I am a product of the system. But maybe, as Bryant Simon implies in Everything but the Coffee, I should burn my Starbucks card like a 1960’s draft notice. I can get a good cup of coffee elsewhere.