Everything but the Coffee, by Bryant Simon

I definitely want to read this book. And since it is on the shelves at the UK library, I may be lucky enough to pick it up on my next visit. Here’s an excerpt from a review:

Part history, part ethnography, part marketing theory and part coffee memoir,Everything but the Coffee places Starbucks at the center of the hypocrisy of the American middle class. Simon has to stretch a great deal here, as he explores why, for a time, the American middle class saw Starbucks is central to its identity.

[Bryant] Simon shows us how we really live, and it ain’t pretty. There was a time, not so long ago, Simon reminds us, that many of us wondered why people would pay so much money for a cup of coffee—even as we were edging closer in line to place our own order. Starbucks, writes Simon, “had little to do with coffee, and everything to do with style, status, identity and aspiration. … Starbucks delivered more than a stiff shot of caffeine. It pinpointed, packaged, and made easily available, if only through smoke and mirrors, the things that the broad American middle class wanted and thought it needed to make its public and private lives better.” Starbucks fed our emotional needs for status. It became our little “self-gift,” an emotional pick-me-up. It allowed us to feel successful.

The next part of the review made me laugh, since it captured so nicely how clever marketing manages to create in us a nostalgia for the way things never were.

It also provided a safe, clean “third space” between home and work, those big chairs and couches becoming our new public sphere. It brought us exotic places and sounds, exposed us to an underground in the safety of a cushy seat: teaching us about places where our coffee came from, and new music and literary voices. It tried to be our cultural guide and helped us feel good about our environmental footprint through its green campaigns and aid to farmers, even if Starbucks did little and we did nothing but buy coffee. It did so consciously, purposefully manipulating our desires, hopes and aspirations, all the while making us feel good about ordering up a venti soy latte.

How many times have we been told that “third places” are a necessary antidote to the increasing atomization of society that the consumer economy has inflicted on us? It doesn’t take much reflection to see that, if this idea ever had any validity, it was quickly turned into just one more avenue for ratcheting up the consumer’s desires (and the cost of feeding them), while at the same time placating him with the thought that he is rebelling against the system.

But, we also knew, on some level, that it was all a delusion we actively participated in. “Starbucks worked as a simulacrum,” Simon writes, “it stamped out the real essence of the original idea of the coffee house and, through proliferation and endless insistence, became itself the real thing for many bobo and creative types.” Even as we believed we were being individuals, demonstrating our sense of style, we were just following the javaman’s master plan. In seeing Starbucks as a third space, as a solution to the environment and globalization, we played into the illusion and lost ground on these fronts.

I’ll be curious to see if Simon explores the cruelest irony of all, namely that such assaults on the citizenry are most successful when they spawn a bunch of copycat operations run by individuals on the cheap, most of whom end up seeing themselves as the authentic version of what the corporate fat-cats have ripped off from the people.


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