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Coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks

EverythingButTheCoffee Given my long-standing interest in the social and community aspects of coffeehouse culture, I was intrigued by a number of articles about Byant Simon's book, "Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks", that turned up during web searches and in some of the links in the tweetstream of @CoffeeShopChat. Over the last several years, Simon has spent 10-15 hours per week visiting 425 Starbucks stores in 9 countries. The book offers a far-ranging critique, exploring the topics of coffee, conversation, community and culture, as well as consumerism, corporatism and conservation in the context of a large coffee chain. Simon is concerned about what he sees as the loss of civic society, and alternately depicts Starbucks as a cause and an effect of this trend.

I share Simon's goal of cultivating community and civic engagement, and his belief in the potential of coffeehouses to promote this goal. However, having spent a great deal of time over the past two years visiting over 200 independent coffeehouses in the Seattle area, I also believe that his image of non-chain coffeehouses may be overly romanticized. While Simon raises a number of important issues, his writing sometimes seems colored by a negative bias that may reflect the disillusionment of a former Starbucks fan, and perhaps a broader disillusionment about America. Rather than attempt a full review of the book here, I will restrict my focus to its contribution to the conversation about coffeehouse culture and community, while incorporating related sources that I hope will further contribute to the discussion.

One of the first articles I encountered about the book was an Associated Press interview with Simon, "Book asserts Starbucks' store designs squelch interaction", in which he argues that a "sense of community" is missing from Starbucks, and claims that "People want these [spontaneous] conversations, people want to feel connected". While I agree with Simon (and Abraham Maslow) that people generally want to feel connected, and that spontaneous conversations can add spice to life, the research that I and my colleagues have conducted suggests that people's openness to serendipitous encounters with potentially consequential strangers in coffeehouses is highly variable. People can be very sociable with the friends they arrive with or the business associates they meet with in coffeehouses, but most people in most coffeehouses generally prefer to abide by the implicit social contract of familiar strangers, maintaining civil inattention or perhaps indulging in nodding acquaintanceships. However, our research also suggests that people are generally interested in the people around them, and while we may not initiate direct conversations with others, we often enjoy a peripheral awareness of the interests and activities of our cohorts, gleaned from observing book covers, overhearing conversations or seeing other displays of people's unique and shared affinities.

In a response to this article, "Reflection on Starbucks in the U.S.: lack of cafe culture and the role of WiFi", Esme Vos offers an international perspective. She observes that European cafes usually serve alcohol, which may help liven or loosen things up, and notes that Europeans tend to go to cafes to meet friends or people watch (but does not say anything about spontaneous conversations). She also asserts that Starbucks is not to blame for what she calls the "zombie cafe" culture in the U.S.:

There is no cafe culture in the United States. Americans are all about speed and efficiency. “Time is money” is the motto of this country. Nothing bad about that, but it does not give rise to a cafe culture where people linger for hours discussing Kierkegaard.

In another reaction to the AP article, specifically responding to Simon's argument that "Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans’ impoverished civic life", educator David Warlick shares his 2 cents on the question "Is Starbucks Killing Community?":

I think that’s a little overboard.  I told Brenda that there are slow times when many of the people at the Starbucks I write at are sitting alone at tables, tapping at their laptops.  But that’s the exception.  Most of the time the room is loud with conversation, and, from time to time, I find myself drawn into discussions with others about a variety of issues.

ChacoCanyon The types of coffeehouse customers that Warlick describes - isolated laptop users vs. loud conversationalists - is fleshed out in a study by sociologists Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta on Community and social interaction in the wireless city: wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces. As I mentioned in my last post on coffee, conversation and continuing education at Zoka (a local coffee micro-chain), their report differentiates two predominant coffeehouse practices. True mobiles go to coffee shops primarily to get work done - typically via laptop and/or mobile phone - whereas placemakers desire and often initiate conversations with others (although these conversations are "as often with coffee shop employees as with customers"). The study looked at Starbucks stores and independent coffeehouses in two cities, Boston and Seattle (in which the independent coffeehouse studied was Chaco Canyon Cafe, shown above left), and found that while both practices can be found in both types of places, more true mobiles were found in the two Starbucks stores and more placemakers were found in the two independent coffee houses

Simon talks about engaging in both practices at various Starbucks stores at various times himself. When he wants to be "alone in public" (or practice what he quotes Steven Levy as calling "portable cocooning", or what Hampton and Gupta might call "public privatism"), he creates his "own virtual gated community" via his laptop, cell phone and iPod. It's worth nothing here that another study by Hampton and his students, The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces: Internet Use, Social Networks, and the Public Realm, suggests that the iPod is probably the most effective tool in achieving this goal. In their exploration of the use and effects of various mobile technologies in public spaces, they observed instances of wi-fi laptop users, book readers, PDA and portable gaming device users and mobile phone users interacting with strangers, but "no one using a portable music device was observed interacting with a stranger".

Simon's observations of other Starbucks customers suggests that he is not alone in his aloneness. In his visits to Starbucks, he observed 65% of the tables had single occupants. However, solitary visits are not restricted to Starbucks stores: in a study we conducted last year at another independent coffeehouse in Seattle (Measuring the Impact of Third Place Attachment on the Adoption of a Place-Based Community Technology), we observed that 62% of customers were alone. As others have noted, aloneness is not loneliness, and while loneliness can be harmful to one's health, aloneness is not always - or even often - a bad thing: Chris Pluger extolled the virtues and benefits of two hours of joint solitude in a coffeehouse in a marvelous 2005 essay.

And, just to round things out, aloneness abetted by technology does not equate to isolation. Hampton and his students recently published a report on Social Isolation and New Technology, in which they note that many aspects of technology use are inversely correlated with social isolation. For example, people who use mobile phones, online photo sharing services and instant messaging tools actually have larger core discussion networks - the significant people with whom we discuss important matters - than those who do not, and bloggers have more racially diverse discussion networks than non-bloggers. However, use of online social networking services such as Facebook does appear to substitute for – rather than supplement – some level of local involvement in the physical world.

In any case, I don't believe Simon believes solitary visits to coffeehouses are a bad thing. However, taken to an extreme, he is concerned that the pervasive solitariness that persists within coffeehouses detracts from the benefits traditionally offered by coffeehouses: "connections, conversations, debate, and, ultimately, the ongoing and elusive desire for community and belonging in the world". Simon notes that Howard Schultz, Starbucks' CEO, has expressed a similar sentiment, seeking to recreate "a sense of community, by bringing people together and recognizing the importance of place in people's lives", although I should note that Simon expresses cynicism about this (and many of Schultz' pronouncements).

TheGrandLiteraryCafesOfEurope Others have also recently commented on the disappearance of coffeehouse traditions. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Coffeehouses: Bringing the Buzz Back, Michael Idov talks about some of the European coffeehouses I first read about in The Grand Literary Cafes of Europe, warning that Americans are "losing the coffeehouse ... to our own politeness". Idov claims that while coffeehouses were once "hotbed[s] of a proudly rootless culture", "seminaries of sedition" with traditions of "intellectual sparring", they have now become elitist bastions of "balkanization". While these coffeehouses may have promoted civic engagement, it appears that they were not well known for civil engagement. Interestingly, Idov argues that this trend toward balkanization is more exacerbated in the third wave (independent) coffeehouses, which he labels as "austere obsessives", observing that "[w]ith the exception of the ubiquitous Starbucks, where slumming and aspiration meet, we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes". And Idov should know, given his own "nightmarish" experience as an independent coffeehouse owner, wherein his dream of hosting a "perpetual dinner party" was soon dashed by the economic, psychic and emotional costs of opening and operating a shop in New York's Lower East Side.

In a related article on Coffee House Culture, Robert Bain elaborates on an episode of the BBC radio series, The Eureka Years, on Coffee, Cosmology and Civil War, an historical account of coffeehouse traditions circa 1650, which suggests that the balkanization that Idov decries may not be a recent, nor exclusively American, invention:

Coffee houses became the respectable alternative to taverns, serving a drink that sharpened rather than dulled the senses and fuelled conversation about arts, science, politics and business. Lloyds’ insurance market, the Stock Exchange and Newton’s theory of gravitation all have their origins in the coffee house.

Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist by day and an expert in the history of coffee by night, draws parallels between coffee house culture and the internet: “Coffee houses tended to have subject-specific alignments, so if you were the clergyman you would go to this one, and if you were an actor you went to that one and if you were a sailor you went to that one, and so forth. They were a bit like websites, and you’d sort of go to the ones that matched your interests…

Oldenburg-GreatGoodPlace Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

Simon frequently invokes Oldenburg and his ideal of the third place, and notes - with some cynicism - that Howard Schultz does, too. Simon also draws upon a related idea, Elijah Anderson's notion of a "cosmopolitan canopy":

sites where different kinds of people gather and feel safe enough to let down their guard and open themselves up to new music, new food, new experiences, new ideas and even new people.

Simon describes a Starbucks on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, that had "that third place feel", and includes other accounts of Starbucks experiences that present what seems like the ideal picture of a third place. For example, he references a 2003 column written by Sandra Thompson in the St. Petersburg Times, "Bringing Us Together, One Latte at a Time", in which she highlights the distinct culture and community - or, perhaps, "subject-specific alignments" - of several different Starbucks in her city:

Once an urban dream in Tampa, Starbucks, the ultimate deliverer of caffeine, has cropped up all over the city. There are now 20 Starbucks in greater Tampa, and while the logo is the same for all, each has its own identity.

At the Starbucks on S Howard Street, you see the city's fashionistas, sitting outside under the oak tree at the edge of the parking lot, feeling good that they're hip and they're here. At the Starbucks near the University of South Florida, young people are hunched over laptops or textbooks, one duo discussing the merits of the carrot cake. At the Starbucks on S West Shore and Kennedy boulevards, well-dressed people with French accents drift in from the Wyndham Westshore Hotel across the street. At West Park Village, mommies and daddies pick up a latte before walking the kids down the block for ice cream.

However, as much as Simon promotes the idea of people who don't already know each other talking to each other and exchanging the ideas, by his own admission, he doesn't practice it much himself. Despite his extensive visits to many Starbucks stores (425), he notes that "on only a dozen or so occasions did I speak to someone I didn't already know", and that he sometimes found that "I didn't know what to say or how to raise questions ... with people I didn't know". And yet, on the same page, he complains that "I have been to plenty of Starbucks without much talk", though on the next page he admits "maybe I should have tried harder".

GoodSheet-008-20081030 I can relate to this challenge myself, and despite my general desire for greater connection and belonging - at coffeehouses and elsewhere - I often don't want to (or am unwilling to) take the time or assume the risk of initiating conversations with people I don't know. And we are not alone. One of the most popular ideas at MyStarbucksIdea - a web site where Starbucks customers can submit, comment and vote on ideas created shortly after Howard Schultz returned as CEO - was "Great Conversations at Starbucks", with 95120 points and 1030 comments. The ideator echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Simon, i.e., wanting to create "a sense of conversation and community" about "the arts, world events and culture" and moving toward a European-style "21st century 'cafe society'" at Starbucks stores. Starbucks responded by offering free copies of The Good Sheet - short, weekly, folded newsheets devoted to social, environmental, economic and political issues intended to spark conversations in the stores (number 008, from October 30, 2008, is shown left) - in its stores, and by sponsoring The Alcove, with Mark Molaro, an online long-format interview program, and offering free access to episodes on its stores' WiFi splash pages.

[Update, 20-Jan-2010: StarbucksMelody has posted a detailed, visually annotated history of the GOOD sheets on her blog; from comments on her blog post and on a post on the official Starbucks blog asking what kind of great conversations people were having, it appears that many people liked GOOD sheets, but there is only one reference to a conversation being sparked by one ... and that was between coworkers, not customers.]

IMG_0117_2 The desire to help break the ice, spark conversation and cultivate community was also the motivation behind CoCollage, the system we developed at Strands Labs Seattle and deployed at 24 coffeehouses and other "great, good places" around Seattle. CoCollage uses a large display to show a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded to a special web site by the customers and staff in that place. I don't know how successful The Good Sheet or The Alcove have been in fostering more conversation and community at Starbucks, but I do know we had some success on those dimensions with CoCollage. In our followup study, "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software", we found that 81% of customers reported that CoCollage "increased interactions" in the coffeehouse and 95% reported that the system "increased the sense of community" there.

An important source of inspiration for CoCollage was the participatory culture of art we discovered at our pilot site, ranging from the framed art on the walls to the more spontaneous art we found in the sketchbooks around the coffeehouse. In his book, Simon contrasts the abstract art, jazz music and "whiff of danger" that speak "the language of freedom and individualism" he associates with independent coffeehouse culture to the "exclusive and controlled environment" he associates with Starbucks stores. While I have observed a broader diversity of art and music in many of the independent coffeehouses I've worked with, most of them are considerably more careful about curating their coffeehouse environments than Simon appears to imagine.

One independent coffeehouse owner with a considerable community customer base told me last fall that he would not allow any kind of political posters or ads; even though he estimated that Barack Obama was the U.S. presidential candidate preferred by about 95% of his customers, he saw no reason to risk alienating the other 5% (bringing to mind earlier themes of politeness and balkanization). The owner of another independent coffeehouse, which also enjoys a strong community connection, imposes very strict standards about the art on its walls and the items allowed on its bulletin boards. Elizabeth Churchill and Les Nelson also found significant levels of curatorial constraints in their conversations with owners of an independent art gallery / cafe in which they had deployed their eyeCanvas digital bulletin board.

Bulletin Board @ 15th Ave Coffee & Tea I always notice - and often take photos of - bulletin boards in coffeehouses, as I think they offer interesting windows into the communities. Simon criticizes the Starbucks policy on bulletin boards, referring to a "Dos/Don'ts of Community Boards" document from the late 1990s (some of which is reflected in a Starbucks Gossip thread on bulletin boards about a year ago). Recently, I've noticed more variety in the items I've seen posted on Starbucks bulletin boards and elsewhere in its traditional stores. And the bulletin boards in its two new un-branded stores in Seattle - 15th Ave Coffee & Tea and Roy Street Coffee & Tea - are indistinguishable from many I have seen at independent coffeehouses (an example from 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea is shown left). These "street level" stores are widely viewed as an attempt by Starbucks to recapture some of its mojo. They are intended to be more individualized (both have their own distinct web sites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts) and better integrated with their local communities, offering poetry readings, musical performances and art, photography and video exhibitions. More importantly, these stores are designed to renew Starbucks commitment to "premium quality, passionate partners and a rich customer experience".

OpeningDayBusynessSimon has written a short blog post expressing cynicism about 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, focusing on its name (which, he notes, is not "Starbucks"), and describing it as "another attempt to consume genuine desire with carefully crafted artifice". Alex Negranza, one of the most passionate people I know in the local independent coffee community, posted an extensive review with a more balanced perspective, noting some positive developments in the quality of coffee at 15th Ave Coffee & Tea (a photo from which is shown right). Although Alex focuses primarily on the coffee at the new store, he also talks about enjoying "interesting conversations" with "extremely friendly" baristas who are "passionate about their involvement in coffee".

[Update, 2009-12-03: Alex has posted a review of Roy Street Coffee & Tea, which also focuses primarily on the coffee, but also talks about the "refreshing transparency", "sense of eagerness" and "refreshing outlook" among the "friendly and eclectic" baristas there.]

Passion is the key to the cultivation of animated conversation, engaged community and vibrant culture, whether in a coffeehouse or any other environment (online or offline). Several years ago, after reading the book, Pour Your Heart Into It, I wrote about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership, and while I have read some cynical comments by disillusioned partners and former partners on the Starbucks Gossip blog, there are clearly a number of partners who persevere in their passion for Starbucks and its customers. A recent post there by a former Starbucks Manager - who has offered pseudonymous critiques of 46 Starbucks stores - about a legendary Starbucks experience offers an inspiring example of contagious passion at a Starbucks in Lynnwood, WA

Chris, a male barista who appeared to be everywhere at once ... was nothing short of amazing – while rocking the bar, he was tossing out well wishes to customers who were on their way out of the building. He joked with folks waiting for drinks. He interacted wonderfully with his fellow partners. It was like there was an aura of energy around him that touched anyone who came near. This is not to say the other partners weren't doing their's just that Chris noticeably stood out and the result was pretty damn cool to experience.

This story about Chris reflects elements of the Coffee House Man that Antony Wild writes about - and Simon alludes to - in his book, Coffee: A Dark History, and the plaza mayors that William Whyte describes in his classic book, "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces". Other names and descriptions for this kind of conversational catalyst can be found in a blog post on "Here Comes Everybody - Tummlers, Geishas, Animateurs and Chief Conversation Officers help us listen", in which Kevin Marks notes that 

The key .. is finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community ... The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don't have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage.

Independent coffeehouses often have brilliant conversational catalysts, of course, and I have had the pleasure of enjoying regular exchanges with many of them; my point here is that Starbucks has them too. Simon questions the authenticity of any exchanges between Starbucks baristas and customers, referring to them as "corporate-generated recognition and banter", but I've read enough comments on different posts on Starbucks Gossip and other blogs that lead me to believe that many Starbucks partners genuinely enjoy interactions with their customers ... or, at least, most of their customers. No one likes to deal with angry, bitter customers (not to mention all the RUDE customers described on a Facebook discussion thread).

And speaking of anger and bitterness, this may be the area where I most sharply disagree with Simon. Simon talks in glowing terms about "heated exchanges", "noisy political debate" and "shocking, in-your-face art" while disparaging "respectful conversation", "familiarity" and "predictability". And he is as disparaging of National Public Radio as he is of Starbucks, accusing both as offering "smooth sailing for the less adventurous, those who want discovery but want it close by, clean, and not too far outside the mainstream". 

I believe there is room for - and value in - both the mainstream and the outliers. I enjoy vigorous debate, but vastly prefer the more respectful form of conversation curated on NPR (and PBS shows such as the Lehrer Newshour) to the kind of angry, bitter attacks I occasionally catch glimpses of on Fox News. With all due respect, I don't believe that civil engagement precludes civic engagement, or that politeness precludes passion. I also enjoy familiarity and predictability, and while I believe it is good to regularly stretch out of one's comfort zone(s), it is also good to have places - online and offline - where one can savor periods of relative comfort as well. Thus I, for one, am glad that there exists a range of third places that span the spectrum.

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