Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bryant Simon's "Everything but the Coffee"

Bryant Simon is Professor of History and the Director of American Studies at Temple University and the author of Boardwalk Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America and other scholarly works.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks and reported the following:
On page 99 of my new book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, readers get to meet Judi Schmitt from Northern Virginia. Like a lot of Americans, Schmitt lives in a highly atomized and privatized suburban world. This geography of nowhere left her feeling alienated and disconnected. Back around the turn of the century, Starbucks looked to her like a chance for something in the right direction, like a place to meet people and begin to form the bonds of community. That is, in fact, the way Starbucks portrays itself, as a “third place,” as a vital space between work and home where people get know other people and develop a deep sense of belonging to the place where they live.

For three years beginning in 2003, Schmitt and a friend played weekly, two-hour long Scrabble games at a local Starbucks. “We kind of hoped to start something,” Judi told me. But she regretted, “we have not ... started a trend.” Not a single person ever asked the two board game players to join them or sat down to talk. A few customers, Schmitt reported, looked up from their “babies, laptops, [and] school books,” and occasionally shared “fond memories of playing Scrabble.” But that’s it.

Schmitt went to Starbucks in search of connections, of that elusive third place – in part because the coffee company promised to deliver these things. But that is not what she got. She instead found a place that looked at a glance like a community gathering spot but on closer examination served as a place for people to be alone in public or work outside the home or maybe meet with a friend or two they already knew. What didn’t happen at Starbucks Schmitt found – and I discovered in my research and visits to 450 Starbucks in 10 countries over a five year period -- is much talk. Starbucks rarely supplied people with a fully satisfying sense of belonging or a vast and valuable network of connections.

Still the company marketed itself as a builder of community because it sensed what Judi Schmitt wanted and desired – a break from the alienation and dislocation of modern life. What Schmitt and most others got at Starbucks, though, was something that looked like a third place, yet lacked the substance of a genuine third place – a place, as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg described it, that buzzed with conversation and brought people together who didn’t otherwise know each other and therefore strengthened and thickened the bonds of community and helped to invigorate democratic culture and practices.
Preview Everything but the Coffee, and learn more about the book at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue