Paying $5 for a paper cup of beans infused in tap water is surely an act of stunningly bad personal economics. Plenty of us commit it regularly, of course, queuing up for gourmet coffee while complaining about the price of gas – a relative bargain even if we can't get it half-unleaded and with a tank-topping froth of STP.
You can just flick that fact into the H.L. Mencken file: further evidence that no one ever went broke low-balling our collective capacity for thinking. Or you can view it as an opportunity for a little sociological investigation.
Taylor Clark works that second approach in Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture. One of five recent books examining the Seattle-based day-spa-cum-coffee-dispensary, "Starbucked" is a breezily written business yarn with plenty of big-picture punch.
Clark, a former alt-weekly writer from Oregon, also has his Mark Kurlansky moments, taking readers all the way to the Ethiopian highlands, maintaining that Beethoven liked to count out 60 beans for his ideal cup, and describing the Mr. Coffee revolution of 1972, in which the cheap drip-brewer opened US consumers' eyes to variations in quality and flavor. Frankly, by the time Gabriel de Clieu – who sailed to Martinique with a coffee seedling between his knees – comes up late in the book, you might feel you've read enough about the commodity through time.
The book's best unbundling is the expected one: How and why did this one brand – a stock-market juggernaut, despite recent dips – get to be king bean?
Seattle, Clark writes, had something to do with it: gloomy weather, lots of northern Europeans, even the perfect water hardness. A bigger part of the answer: Howard Schultz, the aggressive chief who understood not only neat little twists in urban-market penetration – working in from the suburbs, clustering shops – but also the "coffee theater" required to make latte-sipping as much of an American cultural staple as espresso bars are in Milan.
Starbucks, it seems, nails a magical American success formula: Its core product is both elitist in appeal and also altogether massified, even inescapable. Call it high-volume exclusivity. To amp up its appeal, the company built a gilded stage – lots of them, actually – on which its community of consumers could preen.
"Coffeehouses hit the mainstream so hard in the mid-1990s, one might have thought the nation was just emerging from a prolonged national shortage of overstuffed chairs and giant muffins," Clark writes. "Designer coffee became more than just a chic thing to drink; with the third-place idea as its lodestar, Starbucks was making coffee into a way of life."
In "way of life," too, is certified controversy. Starbucks has at one time or another embodied both populist coffeehouse culture and also the kind of monolithic corporate blackheartedness that's sometimes associated – fairly or not – with firms like Wal-Mart. Mostly the big coffeehouse gets a pass. Coffee has clout.
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.
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?
• Clay Collins is a Monitor staff writer.