Friday, January 08, 2010


Intelligent Conversation about Starbucks

In the process of making my film, I noted a couple things:

1. EVERYONE has an opinion on Starbucks. I mean everyone. Even people who don't drink coffee.

2. Point #1 notwithstanding, it is extremely difficult to have a rational, measured discussion of Starbucks. If you utter any criticism of Starbucks, you are an anti-corporate hippie who is hopelessly out of touch with WHAT AMERICA IS ALL ABOUT. (If you doubt me, please view the comments section of my film's trailer on youtube.) If you praise Starbucks, you are a soulless capitalist stooge. In either case, your comments are immediately de-legitimized because you are assumed to have a position that is based on your politics and not on any kind of rational assessment of Starbucks' pros and cons. And if you are mostly interested in Starbucks not for Starbucks itself but for what its existence says about the society that gave rise to it? Well, forget it. That's too complicated. People would much rather size you up as either a Starbucks Hater or a Starbucks Cheerleader and leave it at that.

So one of my greatest pleasures in making my film was getting the chance to meet and interview Bryant Simon. Bryant is a history professor and Director of American Studies at Temple University, and he's also the author of the recently released Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks. I first learned about Bryant when he appeared in the pages of the New Yorker in early 2006. (Yes, I read the New Yorker. I guess that makes me a Starbucks-and-America-hating hippie.) I was intrigued by the thought of a man who made an academic pursuit out of spending days and days and days of his life in Starbucks, observing what went on around him. So I called Bryant to see if I could interview him for my film. And what I remember most about our first phone conversation is this: Bryant said that in his opinion, Starbucks is a mirror. It's a mirror of who we are and what we want. And by looking into that mirror, we can learn a lot about ourselves. I was gleeful when I got off the phone. Finally! Someone with whom to have intelligent conversation about Starbucks! My visit with Bryant in Philadelphia was certainly one of the most interesting days I spent shooting my film (and there were MANY interesting days).

I'm pleased to report that Bryant's book is a continuation of that intelligent conversation. Books about Starbucks tend to fall into the Cheerleader or Hater categories too - either corporate hagiographic fluff or anti-corporate rants. And while there are entertaining examples in both genres, Everything But the Coffee is refreshing in that it stays true to Bryant's notion of Starbucks as a mirror. Starbucks is not the point. We are.

Bryant will be doing some readings on the west coast this week, in Tempe, Seattle, and San Francisco. So if you happen to be in one of those cities, go check him out! You won't be disappointed. You can find out more about it on Bryant's blog. And if you are not in one of those cities... well, you can always buy the book. I highly recommend it.

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