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It's a Starbucks world. (We only sip in it.)

A journalist asks: How did a modest Seattle coffeehouse become a global juggernaut?

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Clark recounts a telling scene chronicled by reporters in Portland: Just a day after window-breaking and even a firebombing over what protesters viewed as a steamroller of chain-led gentrification – McDonald’s had just been beaten back – a handful of protesters were sitting on the ground.

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Their signs were strewn around them, face down. “The picketers’ hands were otherwise occupied – with Starbucks drinks,” Clark writes, “compliments of the store’s staff.”

If that sounds like the ultimate illustration of “resistance is futile,” Clark points out yet another odd contradiction in the Starbucks saga: “[T]he number of independent coffeehouses in America is exploding.” he writes, “and it’s mostly thanks to Starbucks.”

Such help is not intentional. The firm does indeed plunder prime real estate, unsheathing all sorts of tough tactics along the way. But consumers love underdogs, Clark says. Indies, too, can cash in on the love for this commodity that goliath hath wrought, with smart mom-and-pop outlets riding along like pilot fish on a shark.

If that line of thinking gets blood rushing to your face, consider that reactions to Starbucks are almost invariably ... inconsistent. The same crowd that basks in the reflected truth of pop-culture sendups of Starbucks Nation – think filmmaker Christopher Guest’s buttoned-down-to-bursting couple in “Best in Show,” who met when they spied each other from two different Starbucks – tend to cringe apologetically at Starbucks’ culture-crossings. (The firm has wafted grandly into France, for example, and China’s Forbidden City.)

When it comes to international dealings and Fair Trade, Clark maintains, mass-market brands from the Big Four coffee conglomerates – Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, and Massimo Zanetti – merit closer scrutiny

than Starbucks. Gourmet habits, he writes, help third-world farmers – even if Starbucks isn’t the champion of the little guy that it might like consumers to believe. (It’s also now a licensed trademark of Philip Morris. Take from that whatever you like.)

With brand positioning and trendsetting locked up as competencies, the only real threat to Starbucks might be – old story in corporate history – its own success. Clark cites evidence of a decline in quality control. “The company’s date-stamped paper bags of coffee beans gave way to plastic packages with indecipherable codes printed on the bottom to disguise the date of roasting,” he writes. And those caring, green-aproned baristas who made us feel special on those lines for $5 cups? Once, they crafted each drink. Schultz called them “culinary artisans.” Today, Clark writes, “machines pull the shots.” Where’s the mojo in that?

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