Everything but the coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks

October 6, 2009

What are we drinking and what does it say about who we are?

That’s the question Temple historian Bryant Simon contemplated one day five years ago while sitting in a Starbucks. And it’s one he addresses in his new book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (University of California Press, October 2009).

But, Everything but the Coffee is not just about Starbucks. It’s about what Starbucks’ success and recent downturn says about America, Americans and our search for meaning, community, justice and relevance in the 21st century.

photo courtesy of Kelly & Massa Photography

photo courtesy of Kelly & Massa Photography

For the book, Simon visited and revisited more than 400 Starbucks in ten countries — purposely dropping in on the same stores at different times of the day and positioning himself differently each time, at a table or near the counter. He invited linguists, branders, colorologists and teenagers to join him and “tell him what they saw” and once even surreptitiously ran off with a bag of Starbucks’ trash.

What he learned was that at its peak Starbucks thrived by giving Americans what they thought they wanted, which wasn’t coffee. It was predictability, class standing, a sense of community, more natural and authentic products, and a sense of themselves as caring and more benevolent individuals.

“You rent out space for work or a meeting or pay for a chair for twenty minutes of relaxation, or maybe you use it as a place to show off your good taste. Go to this place with art on the walls and jazz flowing out the speakers and you become sophisticated, arty, eco-friendly and cosmopolitan.  But this isn’t necessarily who you are; this is an image you pay a premium to display,” said Simon. 

According to Simon, Starbucks’ skyrocketing success demonstrates how deeply consumption has steeped into our lives—how much energy, emotion and time we invest in what we buy as a representation of who we are.

“As our sense of association and communalism has rolled back, buying has seeped into more and more aspects of daily life,” said Simon. “Starbucks used that retreat in public life to sell us what we want.”

Bryant Simon is Professor of History and Director of American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts, and author of Boardwalk of Dreams:  Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.

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