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Author sees Starbucks selling refuge also

If Bryant Simon owned a coffee shop, it would not have conversation-killing Wi-Fi. It probably wouldn't offer to-go cups.
Image: Starbucks
As public spaces have become less desirable or accessilbe, Starbucks has stepped in to fill the void, historian Bryant Simon says.  Lisa Poole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

If Bryant Simon owned a coffee shop, it would not have conversation-killing Wi-Fi. It probably wouldn't offer to-go cups. But it would have a big, round table strewn with newspapers to stimulate discussion.

That sense of community is what's missing from Starbucks, a conclusion Simon reached after visiting about 425 of its coffee shops in nine countries. And yet millions of people patronize the outlets each day.

Simon, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has spent the past few years figuring out why. His new book, "Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks," is meant "to be part of a public debate about what our purchases mean ... (and) how consumption shapes our lives even when we don't intend it to," Simon said.

Seattle-based Starbucks had nearly $10.4 billion in revenue in 2008. Simon, however, argues the true cost of macchiatos and frappuccinos is much greater — that Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans' impoverished civic life.

Simon writes that while people once were able to find meaningful conversation and debate at libraries, recreation centers and parks, those public spaces have become less available — and less desirable — since municipal resources are focused elsewhere.

Starbucks has filled that void, according to Simon. Or has it? After spending up to 15 hours a week in various Starbucks over the past few years, Simon said he witnessed very few spontaneous discussions or interactions. The couches, plush chairs and tables all seemed to be used for planned meetings or solo work on laptops.

"Rarely ... do these different people doing different things actually talk and exchange ideas, but talk and ideas are crucial to the making of community," he writes.

Simon's observations are already being debated in college classrooms. David Grazian, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is using the book in a class on media and popular culture.

"Given that we seem so reliant on Starbucks as part of the urban infrastructure and suburban infrastructure," Grazian said, "we should be interested in thinking about what it means when so much of our public sphere is taken over by a private enterprise."

Elizabeth Shermer, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles, said she'll use the book in a business history class to show how the workplace has changed.

Many professionals are now independent contractors without access to office spaces like cubicles and conference rooms, said Shermer. These workers once might have taken their laptops to libraries, but cutbacks in hours and maintenance have made them seem less attractive — a last resort for those who can't afford computers or Internet connections, she said.

"You have a lot of folks using Starbucks to carry out the day-to-day business," Shermer said.

Courtney Knowlton, a senior at Arcadia University near Philadelphia, read Simon's chapter on public spaces for a class debate on bookstore cafes. It made her realize that while Starbucks may be a good place for chai lattes, it's often not engaging enough to produce community-building discussions.

"It is pretty isolating most of the time," Knowlton said. "Usually, I just talk to whoever I'm there with."

Still, it's clear that Starbucks is giving people what they want, Simon said. Customers line up for lattes for any number of reasons: to treat themselves; to carry a status symbol; to support coffee growers in underdeveloped nations; to relax in a safe haven; or to taste a bit of comfort far away from home, he writes.

But he questions whether the public embrace of Starbucks keeps people from doing the hard work necessary to build better communities. It takes more to help third-world coffee bean growers than buying a fair-trade espresso, he said.

Starbucks, asked for a comment on Simon's findings, said it gets customer feedback in many forms, including books.

"We appreciate the enthusiasm of all of our customers no matter how they choose to express their opinions," company spokesman Sanja Gould said in an e-mailed statement.

As Simon recently sat in a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia, he acknowledged liking the coffee. He also said he appreciates the architectural details of many of the stores, and the consistent product quality.

And he conceded he probably won't open his own coffee shop. But he said he knows what would make a good one.

"People want these conversations, people want to feel connected," he said. "I'm pretty sure about that."