In today's New York Times, there's an intriguing story on "The Starbucks Aesthetics" by Susan Dominus. The story partly dissects the Starbucks cultural experience, how the company has its own XM station, with forays into producing Indie films, books, and music cds.
Of course, it's about a canned "hip" experience for those of us NPR listeners (which I am). Recently Starbucks opened up a coffeeshop in downtown Fort Myers, which is in desperate need of active and sustaining businesses. It's located in the Kress building, a part of the redevelopment of some wonderful buildings downtown (for a number of years, Gerri and I lived in downtown Fort Myers, and Gerri continues to write of downtown Fort Myers in her history column in a tabloid weekly). So, in many respects, the presence of this Starbucks franchise is a very good thing.
And I do occasionally frequent that Starbucks, and yes, I like much of the canned hipness: the soft-toned mix of alternative rock and cool jazz and 40s standards, the terra cotta colored and 50's moderne themes, the employee-friendly and environmental-friendly ethics, and the very good coffee.
Of course, there's an absolute flatness to the whole experience, a most genial comfort. And this is evident in the corporation's first foray into book publishing, with Mitch Albom as the brand du jour. Okay, I haven't read For One More Day, but I suspect it's as far reaching of a venture as a re-issue of a Frank Sinatra album, or of a spoken word cd by Meryl Streep of The Veleveteen Rabbit. Yes, it's a good thing, but it's so friendly, so reassuring, and so empty.
Dominus includes a very telling statement by Nikkole Denson, who is the chain's director of business management, as she describes Starbucks' involvement in the production of Akeelah and the Bee:
“Starbucks is all about community and inspiration, and everything in that movie seemed aligned with that — it has that human connection,” Ms. Denson said. “It doesn’t have to be a family film, but it does have to be socially relevant.” As for the books she’s selecting — they won’t all be by name brands like Mr. Albom — she says she wants books that provide “almost an education without being preachy.” Yes, they should be inspiring, but also, she hopes, challenging: “not racy or dark, but thought-provoking.”Now what's interesting here is the emphasis on producing and supporting works that are wholesome, affirming nuggets. Seeing that a Starbucks brand (whose "core customer" is a 42-year-old professional earning $90,000 per year) could have the cultural impact of Oprah Winfrey, at least among the NPR crowd, I find this news yet another dreary reminder that what Americans, even the ones I like a lot, want is the least bothersome of communities, the most convenient of inspirations.
And yes, I do worry about my coffee and its social relevance, whether it supports fair-trade, is organic, shade-grown. And yes, I also work at an institution (the American public university) that seeks to provide "almost an education," profferring ideas that are almost challenging, but certainly "not racy or dark, but thought provoking." What I hope for, then, is the proliferation of that wild coffee, those undrinkable kinds, that take root, flourish in the most acid of soils, the darkest and least accessible of forests. I like to think of my remains being spread in that kind of dirt, giving nourishment to those kinds of unbrandable and impolite varieties.