Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Drink your coffee elsewhere

In today's New York Times, writer Susan Dominus schools us in the expanding "Starbucks Aesthetic." The chain is styling itself to become a "purveyor of premium-blend culture." Or, as Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz says: "...the opportunity to extend the brand is beyond coffee: it's entertainment."

Note the term "brand." The Starbucks brand is currently bringing you Mitch Albom's lastest, which you can read, then use as treacle in your coffee while listening to the Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis mix CDs you bought while waiting for your low-fat mocha decaf. Notably, those CDs were the brainchild of Mr. Timothy Jones, who was forced to find work at Starbucks after his independent record store went out of business. Jones also championed singer Madeleine Peyroux. Funny, I heard her on the radio.

But back to Howard, who keeps talking about "the brand." "The trust we have with the brand." "The profile of our customers." That's over forty, educated, wealthy, and more than a little nervous about getting older, wealthier, and squarer (not that I identify or relate in any way.) Howard has hired Ms. Nikkole Denison to help create something called a "halo": connotations of good feeling, the sort of response I have, say, to hearing Aretha Franklin or Bob Seger. Starbucks' halo will give customers movies, books, and music furthering the Starbuckian notion of "community and inspiration." Media selected will be educational, "socially relevant," but "not racy or dark, but thought-provoking."

I guess they wouldn't like A Discerning Eye. Or The Year of Magical Thinking. How about Suite Francaise?

"There's the faintest whiff of discriminating good taste around everything Starbucks sells...." designed to "flatter the buyer's self-regard." Jesus, are people really that nervous about buying coffee cups? CDs? Books? Seems so. Literary agent Laurence Kirschbaum notes that apart from Oprah, "there's no really widely accepted authority to recommend to books."

Excuse me...Oprah? Who in hell made her final arbiter? Yep, lots of ladies watch her and hang on her every word. But Oprah is one person, with, excuse me for mentioning this, middling literary tastes. Elfriede Jellinek will never, ever appear on Oprah. Nor will Lydia Davis.

Why are people so nervous about making decisions? Thomas Hay tells Ms. Dominus that Starbucks "helped him by editing down his cultural choices." That Starbucks media sprang from "some people of caring hearts and minds who have looked at this and felt it was worthwhile and beneficial and would create a good vibe in the world."

Mr. Hay, that's exactly what Starbucks wants you to think. They want you to buy their books, their CDs, see their movies. Incidentally, buy their coffee, too. They want you to buy the lifestyle they're selling, cup by cup.

Here's what Starbucks doesn't want you to do: shop in independent bookstores. Shop in small record shops, like Mr. Jones'. See dark, racy movies with sad endings. Drink your coffee elsewhere.

Stop and wonder why a coffee shop--a coffee shop!--is turning into a media conglomerate that feeds off your insecurities.


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