Wireless and Cafe Culture

In her column, McLaren tells the story of Zoots cafe in Toronto.  Trying to lure customers, the cafe owners offered free wireless.  And customers came, but they never left.  They turned the cafe into an office away from the office and tables into virtual study carrels.  “Ostensibly,” writes McLauren echoing something a I say in my book, cafes are “public spaces, but they feel [like the] private sector.”

But this was also something of business problem.

“As more people plugged in, the energy of the cafe began to sink,” reported Zoots owner, Melanie Jainsse, “People would turn up, buy a $2 tea, hunker down, and sit there for five or six hours not buying anything or talking to anyone. It really started to buy me.”

So Janisse covered up the plugs with duct tape.

At first, customers hated the change.  They wanted their wireless. But eventually, Janisse claims, the cafe became more vibrant and even busier.  “We’re packed all the time now,” she says, “People take the board games out of drawers, they play chess, they write in notebooks.  They talk about art, it’s great.  I’m providing an environment for people who to breather air, not a haven for some jerk in skinny jeans who wants to slouch over his e-mail all day.”

At some level, I’m down with Janisse.  Wireless helps cafe customers to create their private spaces within the coffee shop, and they do, it seems, sometime get in the way of talk.  They sometimes make cafes feel like study halls; you feel guilt if you talk out loud.

But there maybe Janisse is missing something, alternative forms of community.  Certainly twitter and facebook and even e-mails are the basis for other kinds of talk and exchange and much of this takes shapes in the coffeehouse.

But the question is, I guess, what kind of talk matters the most?  Does talk — the kind of talk that nurtures community and connections and perhaps even democracy (nod to Habermas here and to the Penny Universities of England) — need to be face to face?  Is this the most important talk, the most essential to community?  Isn’t this the kind of talk that leads to other kinds of talk and can go in all kinds of directions?

Is twitter talk or facebook talk somehow less talk than face-to-face talk?  Is it just a prelude to face-to-face talk in person, perhaps a wireless, free coffee shop?  What kind of talk matters?  And where is the coffeehouse is this process?  Can it do both, be a place for real talk and virtual talk?  Any thoughts?

Two More Starbucks Boycotts

Singapore’s Chua Chin Hon wrote in the Straits Times in 2003, “I’m no anti-globalization protestor, nor am I about to become one. But after the “American coffee giant his words opened in Beijing’s Forbidden City, he thought he could understand “a little of the rage against the global capitalist machinery’s relentless and oft-times, senseless drive to sell a few more cups of coffee, burgers, or T-shirts. Yet he still believed in consumer power. “We can . . . send out an unequivocal message by voting with our wallets. No more Starbucks for him until it got out of the Forbidden City. In 2007, Rui Chenggang, a news anchor for Chinese Central Television, renewed the call to get Starbucks out of the 587-year old royal residence also known as the Palace Museum. He and his supporters accused the coffee company of tainting “China’s national culture. Looking to pressure Starbucks, he called for a boycott of the company everywhere in China until it closed shop in the Forbidden City.

This boycott actually worked, or sort of worked. The Starbucks in the Forbidden City is closed, but it has been replaced by a Chinese company selling pricey lattes and cappuccinos in white cups with green logos. Progress?

Like Chua Chin Hon and Rui Chenggang, a large cross-section boycotters are trying to get Starbucks to stop doing something and thereby protect something they value. Forty-four year old James Hartline told me over the phone that he used to be gay. “I was in that lifestyle for thirty years, he admitted. He continued, actually he barely took a breath when we talked, that he knew first hand how destructive this gay world could be. Too many drugs, too much sex, too much pornography, too many men into S & M and “cold steal chains, and too many pedophiles. As a Christian, he declared, he wanted to save the children of his city. By sponsoring the San Diego Gay Pride Parade and other “homosexual foundations, he argued, Starbucks supported this “lifestyle of triple X pornography, causal sex, and the recruitment of the young. “I can’t stand on sidelines any longer, Hartline proclaimed, “its like the Nazis taking the Jews away. I would stand in the train tracks. Lack of action is very dangerous. With this in mind, Hartline used a web page, blog, and speeches to call on all true Christians to boycott Starbucks and stop the spread of homosexuality.

In 2008 Hartline, in fact, claimed that the boycott was starting to get to Starbucks. Check out his blog. He actually says that Starbucks closed its stores — this was true, but it was to train employees to pull a better shot of espresso.

Boycotting Starbucks, Part One (of Several)

Just like buying Starbucks tells a lot about America, not buying Starbucks communicates a good deal as well.
Over the last few years, it does seem that consumer boycotts are on the rise. Perhaps this is a response to growing corporate power and maybe even to a perception of declining civic authority or faith in established politics institutions. Indeed to some big business seems to hold more of the cards than big government these days, so that is where the protesters focus their larger political and cultural energies and ire.

Cultural critic Sharon Zukin writes in her book on shopping, Point of Purchase, that “the public space of shopping is a space of discussion and debate. By buying something and especially by consciously and publicly withdrawing their purchases, consumers are heard. Through their marketplace activities, buyers can, and sometimes do say, what they think, lay out their vision for justice, and explain how they see and imagine a fair and equitable society. They also talk about their place in the matrix of power in who controls things and makes the decisions.

Not buying is also a way, as Zukin explains, for consumers to make the companies they buy from accountable “to the law, to morality, and to social justice. But it is not just companies. Consumer actions use companies as levers to talk to others in the marketplace, elected officials, and even diplomats. Indeed as consumption takes over more and more space in our lives and as companies like Starbucks promise to deliver not just products but experiences, then lifestyles, and then the fulfillment of our deepest desires, boycotts and other moves to stop buying have become more important, more prevalent, and more creative, more revealing, and more deeply political forms of expression. That’s what those who stopped buying Starbucks were doing. They were trying to force their way, dragging Starbucks along with them, into a conversation about the meaning of buying and the distribution of power in the modern world of mass consumption.

Starbucks attracted protesters like cheap beer attaches college students because it promises so much. As the firm’s brand managers boast all the time, it sells more than coffee. Offering a third space, easily attained social status, and solutions to everything from bowling alone to global warming to reconciling the nation’s racial past might get people in the door and keep them coming back, but it also raises expectations. As scholars sometimes note, the most dangerous people in society are not the truly beaten, but those with elevated hopes. When promises aren’t met, they fire back with emotion, even anger. But it not just raised expectations that make Starbucks a target. The company’s tone acts like magnet for protestors. There is a boastfulness about Starbucks, even a sanctimonious smugness. It definitely does good things it gives money to nurses associations in Oregon, literacy programs in Georgia, and clean water campaigns in New Jersey. But the company is also the first to talk about these things, to pat itself on the back. Implicitly, then, at the same time, they set themselves off from other companies. As they have done this, Starbucks has anointed itself as the corporate do-gooder king and put itself on a pedestal. As they do, others come along only too happy to knock them down. Along the way, the protestors turn the company’s self-mythologizing and widely professed values into demands. In end then, drinking or not drinking lattes, is a way for ordinary people people without stock portfolios or political connections — to talk back, to have their voices heard on a wide range of ethnical, community, political, and even ideological issues that they care about and want to fix. Really anti-Starbucks boycotts and protests serve as a window into very local and very global concerns and the connections between them — of consumers everywhere.

Boycott Story Number One — in anticipation of March Madness:

When Howard Schultz, boyhood hoopster, bought the hometown Seattle Supersonics in 2001, the local paper predicted the “rebirth of the franchise. Schultz fed these dreams, talking about returning the team to its “glory days. But things didn’t go as planned. Star forward Shawn Kemp couldn’t stay out of a courtroom or on a basketball court. Then, Schultz, the team president, traded the high-priced, fan-favorite, and lock down defender, Gary Payton, for next to nothing. By 2006, the Sonics hadn’t turned things around and Schultz wanted a new arena to boost the franchise’s prospects. When Seattle voters said no, he sounded petulant in public and promptly sold the team to an investment group almost certain to take the club to Oklahoma City.

One disappointed fan wrote, “I should have know immediately that Schultz’s promises for the team “were a trick, judging by the exorbitant prices he charges for his liquid sin. Sure enough, he continued looking back over the CEO’s tenure with team, “it was all a farce. Not only did he turn the team’s greatest player and most beloved player out of town, but he threw a temper tantrum when Seattle refused to charge taxpayers for another publicly-funded arena for his new toy. “God forbid, he continued, “that a billionaire be required to pay for his own private wetdream. Based on his reading of Schultz’s actions, this man concluded, “any corporation run by this man is surely evil. No more lattes for him or a host of other Sonics fans. Local columnist Robert Jameson supported the boycott as well. He quoted from a Starbucks coffee cup that said, “voting is the method by which we purchase the right to be critical. His vote, no Starbucks. “Take that, Mr. Coffee, he wrote.

Reading Signs

This will be short. I went to the franchise — e.g. not company owned — Starbucks in Margate, New Jersey with my good friend and shoobie for this week, Rudy Fuller. As we waited in line, I looked up and saw a sign behind the counter that featured a large picture of bright red coffee berries.

The copy on the sign read: “Ethically sourcing and batch roasting for you since 1971.

Point One: As I told, Rudy, there really was no such thing as ethical sourcing in 1971. Fair trade labeling didn’t get started until the 1980s. Starbucks didn’t start selling fair trade coffee until activists pressured the company into doing so. In other words, it didn’t jump on the bandwagon, it was pushed on. Still, what the company means by ethically sourcing is anybody’s guess. They have simple declared themselves ethical. Today, Starbucks is the world’s largest consumer of fair trade coffee beans, but that only represents only 10 percent of its total coffee purchases.

Point Two: Starbucks hasn’t batch roasted unless you count by the tons since 1971.

And remember, Starbucks is doing this for “you,” for us.

Okay Rudy, I know that is more than bargained for while getting a early morning vacation iced coffee, but I couldn’t take that sign’s (deliberate) misrepresentation. On to the beach.

Starbucks Looking to Buy Peet’s

As insiders have long predicted, Starbucks is looking to snatch up Peet’s. Obviously this filled with irony, since Gerald Baldwin, one of Starbucks’ three original founders, is the owner of Peet’s.

But really this will be a bad deal for Starbucks. That’s not because Peet’s doesn’t have value; it does. Actually its coffee credentials and credibility are much, much stronger than those of Starbucks. Even though, Peet’s sells mostly dark roast coffee, no one calls it, “Charbucks.” And no one, gives out bumper stickers that say, “Friends Don’t Let Friends go to Starbucks.”

Yet the day that Starbucks buys Peet’s is day that Peet’s real and cultural value falls. Just the association with Starbucks at this point will turn off and turn away Peet’s most loyal customers. One of my friends posted the article hyerlinked above about Starbucks thinking of buying Peet’s on her Facebook page with this simple message attached, “NO!” Again, this suggests that a Starbucks association would have a negative impact on Peet’s — in many ways undermining the very strong image that Peet’s possesses and making the company worth less it is acquired by Starbucks.

That just the way it is and this state of the Starbucks brand these days.

Starbucks and Fair Trade

Last month, Pop Matter ran an article adopted from my book that talked about Starbucks and its impact on the music business. The title was, “Starbucks and the New Age of Censorship.” Obviously, this piece raised some criticism of the company, but it sparked an even more interesting conversation about fair trade.
In response, Rob Ivan of Atlanta wrote, “There are many ways to be accountable to your fellow humans on this planet, and Starbucks has a good record in this area.”

Responding to Rob, Mark Kemp of Charlotte, a terrific music writer I cite in the article, wrote a really smart and perceptive critique of Starbucks and its Fair Trade polices. Check it out:

“I need to take issue with this comment. Starbucks also has a record of misrepresenting itself in the area of accountability to its fellow humans. For example, the company’s PR information suggests though it doesn’t say flat-out that its coffees are all fair trade. And Starbucks does carry fair trade coffees but only about one bag out of many at most stores is “certified fair trade, which is the only kind of fair trade product available that consumers can know came from workers in fields who were paid decent wages for their incredibly hard labor. Starbucks doesn’t carry all 100-percent certified fair trade coffees because it would be more expensive to do so. Meanwhile, many small mom-and-pop stores really do contribute to fair trade practices by carrying all 100-percent certified fair trade coffees. But those stores pay an exorbitant amount of money for these coffees and have to raise their prices to get any kind of profit. If Starbucks used 100-percent fair trade coffees, it would cost the company much less than it does for mom-and-pop stores because of the volume of coffee it moves.

The end result is this: Many well-intentioned people go to Starbucks and purchase their coffee at marginally lower prices than what they’d pay at mom-and-pop stores, thinking they are buying a certified fair trade product because that’s how Starbucks effectively markets itself. Sure, people who want to contribute to fair trade practices should do more research and know this already, but many people trust Starbucks’ cynically disingenuous marketing of coffee, just as they trust its marketing of “smart, “exciting new artists. It wants people like Rob, the fellow who wrote the note above, to believe it is a more socially and environmentally sensitive company than it really is. And I’m not sure that’s much worse than not being socially or environmentally sensitive at all. It’s certainly less honest.”