Geoff Gannon July 27, 2008

On a Starbucks Shuttered

They say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

I don’t know who they are; but I know of what they speak.

I recently lost a coffee place (not a Starbucks). It was a traumatic experience.

Last year, my eye doctor asked if I did a lot of reading at work: “Mostly SEC filings”, I said. “That’ll do it”, he replied, “You have what I like to call computer eyes”. And so, for the first time in my life, I became acutely aware of the occupational hazards of investing.

Now, a few times a month, I take a couple hours off to venture outdoors. Yes, I know the sun’s demonic rays cause cancer; but they also cure electronic induced ennui. Sounds fair to me.

There’s one coffee place I always go. I take my Kindle with me (hopefully there’s no such thing as Kindle eyes), order a double espresso (and since this isn’t a Starbucks I actually say the words “double espresso”), give the cashier three singles, get ninety-five cents back and drop it all in the tip jar (I’m not generous; I just hate change).

Then, I take a table (yes, it’s the same table every time – I told you I hate change) and stay there reading until I feel guilty I only paid three dollars and I’m hogging their table.

At that point, I usually stay another hour.

If my behavior is typical of their customers, it’s not entirely surprising that I should’ve come upon the sight I saw last week, though it came as quite a shock to me.

The place was empty. The tables gone. The signs gone. Everything gone.

This was a change. I did not like it. But I soldiered on. Off I went to the nearest coffee place (again, not a Starbucks). The trek was slightly less than half a block. There I found a handwritten sign in the window:

Closed for vacation. Back next month.

Another change. I did not like it. At that point, I realized it was a summer day, I was hot, and I probably didn’t want coffee anyway. So I walked another half block to a deli, bought a Cherry Coke, gave the cashier two singles, got eighty-three cents back and dropped it all in the tip jar (again, I’m not generous; I just hate change).

I haven’t related this most boring of stories to you for no reason.

Much modern writing (even some blog writing – wink, wink, nudge, nudge) drips with sarconihilism, that especially astringent strain of sarcasm bordering on nihilism. In such writing, not only is nothing sacred – nothing is above casual, comedic contempt. It is occasionally hilarious, often elitist, and indubitably dishonest.

It makes fun of life’s littlest pleasures, especially the ordinary. Starbucks is a frequent target; the coffee chain is nothing if not ordinary:

The green aprons, the blond wood, the safari-themed coffee art and the chalkboards. From Chula Vista, Calif., to Bangor, Me., all Starbucks are more or less the same. And that’s how the company wants it…But every store, as it turns out, is not quite the same. When a Starbucks opened on Broad Street here almost eight years ago, it was not seen as a bland new spigot of a corporate coffee-pot, but as a gathering place whose very existence would have seemed impossible a decade before, a symbol of a knocked-down city’s attempt to get up.

(Kareem Fahim – The New York Times)

The Broad Street referenced is in Newark, New Jersey. Starbucks announced it will close its Broad Street branch along with 599 other stores. The New York Times records the reactions: “They’re not going to close the one on Wall Street!”, “It’s the only nice place on the street”, “(Starbucks) is important for me…It’s important for a lot of people.

There are actually three Starbucks in Newark (excluding the airport); the other two are in less unexpected locations: a college campus and an office complex. But, Broad Street was different. It was an outpost of civilization in an uncivilized place – if civilization is defined as the presence of life’s littlest pleasures, especially the ordinary:

There was no great mystery about the model. Starbucks, whatever it liked to claim, never really had the best coffee in the world. But like most chains it offered something else instead: reliability. You could drop into a Starbucks anywhere in the world and you would know what you were getting. It introduced the sort of café where you could sit around drinking coffee and reading the papers to countries where such places had never really existed before. In Britain, it was a big step up from Joe’s greasy spoon with Nescafé in a chipped mug. Likewise, to most Americans it was a step up from an old-fashioned diner.

(Matthew Lynn – The Spectator)

And so it was in Newark too.