We Are Totally Starbucked

111307 waldman web We Are Totally StarbuckedSTARBUCKED: A DOUBLE TALL TALE OF CAFFEINE, COMMERCE, AND CULTURE
By Taylor Clark
Little, Brown, 297 pages, $25.99

When New York’s first Starbucks opened in 1994, it wasn’t greeted with alarm, as phase one of an insidious plan to colonize the city. In that innocent era, Starbucks, with a mere 425 stores—compared to more than 14,000 today—still enjoyed a reputation for being kind of hip and even a little bohemian (O.K., upscale bohemian). It hailed from Seattle, after all. It did cool things, like offer its part-time employees full health benefits. The coffee was said to be good, if a bit burnt-tasting.

The public’s relative unfamiliarity with Starbucks until recently is rather astonishing, considering that today complaints about the company are as commonplace as its green-and-white cups.

Even more than the infamous Disney store in Times Square, Starbucks is, for many, shorthand for so much of what’s awry in the city today: It stands for rampant gentrification; for corporate greed that puts homegrown, mom-and-pop cafes out of business; and for homogenization that is stripping the city of its authentic charms—the old-school neighborhood coffee shops that call to mind scrappy artists rather than troops of would-be Bill Gateses. (And what’s with the weird, New Agey quotes on its cups?)

Yet New Yorkers frequent the place, in droves.

Enter Taylor Clark into this strange nexus of patronage and pique. Mr. Clark, a journalist from Portland, Ore., is no Starbucks junkie. Temperamentally, he inclines toward independent coffee shops (he doesn’t like Starbucks’ sterility). His book about the coffee chain’s mind-blowingly rapid rise from tiny, independent coffee roaster to global juggernaut evaluates, one-by-one, progressives’ complaints lodged against the company—everything from its treatment of its 100,000-plus network of low-wage employees and the Third World tobacco-coffee farms supplying its beans to its impact on communities and local culture.

But Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture is not a jeremiad against the company any more than it is a fawning account by a businessy type who thinks a rising stock price is synonymous with the common good. It is something else altogether—smart cultural criticism minus any academic gobbledygook. Mr. Clark is quite funny as he dryly sends up the excesses of the corporate behemoth, and Starbucked is an entertaining, highly readable book.

Moreover, it’s a telling and timely one. While Mr. Clark’s evenhandedness is likely to disappoint people who reflexively see Starbucks’ rise as “a sign of the impending apocalypse,” those who want more than empty validation of anticorporate bias will find much here that is revelatory about our culture—and our world. (More than 4,000 of Starbucks’ outlets are located outside the U.S., in places as far-flung as Bahrain, Cyprus and Macau.)

As Mr. Clark points out, Starbucks didn’t just expand rapidly; it created a market that barely existed previously: “Twenty years ago, a national chain of stylish cafes selling coffee at unheard-of prices seemed as likely to succeed as a designer corn-on-the-cob vendor or a luxury thumbtack company. …” That today Americans barely bat an eye at paying $4 for, in Mr. Clark’s phrase, “pitchers of milk and espresso” tells us just how effectively Starbucks has changed the way we think.

That’s frightening. But it doesn’t mean that all of our worst fears about the company are well-founded. One of Mr. Clark’s most surprising finds contradicts the conventional wisdom that Starbucks is putting independent coffee shops out of business. It “isn’t merely a bit off the mark—it’s completely false,” he writes. “In 1989, the United States could claim a grand total of 585 coffeehouses, according to statistics from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.” Today, there are more than 24,000 coffee shops in the nation (only about 10,000 of which are Starbucks), and that number is growing.

Once upon a time, coffee was a loss leader for diners, which usually offered dirt cheap bottomless cups of terrible-quality brew. By making it acceptable to charge upward of $2 for a regular coffee, Starbucks has enabled a ballooning number of coffee shops to thrive outside upscale-bohemian niche markets like New York and San Francisco.

Another shocker undercuts the assumption that Starbucks’ preeminence has hurt small coffee farmers whom the company bullies into accepting unfairly low prices. Indeed, Starbucks gets a lot of flack because only a small percentage of its coffee is Fair Trade-certified. (Fair Trade coffee is bought not at a market-rate price but at a guaranteed price high enough to ensure a decent living for the farmers.) Yet in 2006, Starbucks paid an average of $1.42 per pound, 16 cents more than the Fair Trade price of $1.26 per pound. The reason: The Fair Trade designation is tied to price, not to quality, and Starbucks—unlike the big food conglomerates that chemically reconfigure their coffee beans (and provide 60 percent of the coffee that Americans consume)—isn’t looking for the cheapest beans available.

Economic analysis aside, Starbucked is also full of cocktail-party-worthy tidbits. Who knew, for example, that a Canadian man sued Starbucks because a “faulty toilet seat smashed his penis against the bowl”? Or that a gentleman’s club in Seoul, South Korea, capitalized on its name recognition by calling itself “Starbutts”?

Anticorporate animus, bizarre lawsuits and pornographic riffs on its name … such are the wages of being as prominent as Starbucks. Well, those things plus hundreds of millions of dollars in profits each year.

Adelle Waldman is a writer living in Brooklyn.