Eugene Weekly : Books : 11.08.07

They’re Everywhere
And maybe not as evil as we like to think

STARBUCKED: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, nonfiction by Taylor Clark. Little, Brown, 2007. Hardcover, $25.99.

When I moved to New York City for college in the early ’90s, I was disappointed to find there wasn’t a Starbucks in the city.

I should be embarrassed to admit that, now, of course; why would I want the gargantuan chain in a metropolitan area with hundreds of other coffee shops to choose from? But at the time, it seemed like it ought to be there. It was a reliable place to get good coffee, right?

When I left New York five years ago, things had changed. I was all too familiar with the Astor Place intersection from which a person can easily spot three Starbucks (for the record, I was also familiar with the now-closed Alt.Coffee, an East Village establishment I preferred to frequent). This intersection is referenced early on in Taylor Clark’s Starbucked, an entertaining, informative look at the rise of the coffee chain’s empire and at the arguments against its inescapably caffeinated domination.

Clark begins his whole not-so-sordid tale with an example of the peculiar ubiquity of the brand: the moment when now-chairman Howard Schultz decided to open another Starbucks across from an existing one in Vancouver, B.C. Did one store steal the other’s business? Hardly. Instead, they both flourished. Clark hasn’t counted the number of corners or city blocks in the world where more than one Starbucks is within a stone’s throw, but there are certainly plenty, all serving up (roughly) the same drinks, pastries, travel mugs and KT Tunstall albums.

How did the Seattle chain evolve from a small business started by three guys who didn’t know what to do with themselves? The first half of Starbucked — the more ripping-yarn half — is in essence a brief history of coffee that leads swiftly to Seattle, and to Schultz, a New York salesman who, in 1981, fell in love with his first sip of Starbucks coffee. Wildly competitive and equally wildly impassioned, Schultz’s story is so thickly entwined with the Starbucks story (despite the fact that he didn’t found the company) that Clark’s book is, in large parts, really about Schultz and his obsession with building Starbucks to and beyond the massive state it’s in today. The guy is a master salesman, and you might find yourself wondering if Clark has bought into his pitch a little too much; every so often he seems to go a little soft on the corporation.

But even if, like myself, you find yourself occasionally feeling a little skeptical that Starbucks is really all that harmless, that’s no reason to put down Clark’s tome. The man knows his stuff, for one thing: Starbucked is in part an expansion of the author’s 2004 Willamette Week story “Totally Starbucked,” which looked at five common charges against the company and whether they were truly applicable or not. As in that story, in Starbucked Taylor spends a good deal of time mulling over whether the most frequent complaints against Starbucks are legitimate. He comes to the conclusion that a few are, but most aren’t — at least, not totally. The store doesn’t, for the most part, actually put smaller coffeeshops out of business; in fact, it often increases their business. It’s not a terrible place to work; it offers benefits and perks to those who work more than 20 hours per week. But its good sides aside, it’s still a corporate entity and one that shows no signs of slowing down its relentless march of stores, which sprawl across the globe (there’s even one at the Great Wall of China). Clark clearly enjoys the tale and excels at the telling of it — the humble beginnings, the love/hate relationships, the shift from coffee to capitalism — but even he, in the end, drinks Starbucks only reluctantly. And for whatever reason, I take comfort in that.

Taylor Clark reads from Starbucked at 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 19, at Powell’s on Hawthorne, Portland.


BOOK NOTES: Gary Holthaus discusses From the Farm to the Table: Modern Agriculture in Community, 7 pm 11/9, Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. Ha Jin reads from In a Free Life, 7:30 pm 11/12, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. John Burridge and Damon Kaswell, winners of the Writers of the Future XXII contest, read and sign copies of the anthology in which their stories appear, 4 pm 11/13, Barnes & Noble. Norman Solomon speaks on Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters With America’s Welfare State at 1 pm 11/15, 308 Forum Building, LCC (free), and following a film screening of War Made Easy at 7 pm 11/15, 175 Knight Law, UO ($5-$25 sliding scale). “Starts, Stops, and Our Time Between the Two,” with Shannon Applegate and John C. Morrison, 7 pm 11/20, Downtown Library. Diane Ackerman (The Zookeeper’s Wife) speaks, 7:30 pm 11/20, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. $26, $20 stu, sr.