Starbucks and the White Whale

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article chronicling Starbucks' strategy of positioning itself as a purveyor of high-end culture. The company has already enjoyed great success promoting compilation CDs, original albums, such as Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company," as well as the movie "Akeelah and the Bee." Now you can buy Mitch Albom's "For One More Day" with your latte, and soon Starbucks will open "media bars" in most of its chains, where customers can browse the 200,000 songs in the Starbucks library and burn them on CDs for a price.

This is all part of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's grand plan to make Starbucks a "third place" in people's lives, a caffeinated Ever-Ever Land between home and work. Schultz talks about leveraging Starbucks trusted "editorial voice" and relationship with its customers to become an entertainment destination. "We talk to our customers all the time," he explains. "Focus groups, exit surveys, things of that nature. Because we own and operate all our own stores, it's very easy for us to have intimate conversations with our customers."

I like going into Starbucks. The coffee isn't great but it's reliably good. I like the smell of a fresh stack of New York Times. The decor, covered with distressed fonts, hieroglyphics and wood-cut-like imagery, might have been thrown together by an imaginative small business owner. But something in me rebels too. I resent Starbucks success in replicating on a massive scale the one-of-a-kind sensibility of a neighborhood coffee shop. If I allow myself to be tricked, it's because I have no choice. They've put the real thing out of business.

The world's first coffee shop Kiva Han opened in Turkey in 1475. After traders brought coffee to Italy, the drink quickly developed a reputation as a subversive drug. Pope Clement VIII's advisors wanted it banned as "the bitter invention of Satan." Legend has it that instead the Pope converted the drink to Christianity in a bizarre baptismal ceremony. Coffee houses soon became a haven for disgruntled intellectuals, called "Penny Universities" in London. Charles II wanted to close them but chickened out in the face of popular sentiment. The Boston Tea Party was hatched in a coffee shop. By the 1950s, coffee houses became the favorite hangouts of the bohemian chattering class, launching Bob Dylan and the folk protest movement of the 60s.

In pre-Starbucks New York, I got my coffee in two places. The first place was the deli downstairs, where carafes of steaming coffee couldn't get their smell past the meatballs under the heat-lamps. The coffee was bad but good with a cigarette. The second place was run by an Hungarian and featured naive artwork by the owner's brother. Coffee was either a drug to be bought on the quick or to be savored in a behind-the-iron-curtain kind of place that seemed to favor subversive conversation. It was either a morning routine or a nightly act of sedition -- until Starbucks merged the two.

The name tells us something. Starbucks was the first mate of the Pequod in "Moby Dick," a Quaker known for his integrity and unromantic, mercantile instincts. Significantly, he was the one sailor aboard the Pequod who argued against fighting the white whale.

"How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

Ahab explains: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. If man will strike, strike through the mask!"

But Starbuck will have none of this metaphorical nonsense: "To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

The history of the chain gives us some more clues. In 1971, two teachers and a writer opened the first Starbucks in Seattle as a boutique shop offering premium dark-roasted coffee. Like the original Starbuck, the three were obsessed with integrity and getting the job done well, and the business prospered. New York businessman Howard Schultz joined the company in the 80s, added to the odd-ball, detail-oriented shop an unlikely sense of scale, and eventually bought the place.

Do we have a formula yet? I think so. Take something unique that connects to people in a direct way, shave off its rough edges and scale it up massively. The original logo of a "split-tail siren" with exposed breasts and navel gradually morphed into a contemporary new-age maiden, and the tiny idiosyncratic store grew into a vibe-in-a-box stretching from New York to Bangkok.

Starbucks has its champions and its detractors. Some say the company exports a "monoculture," much the way McDonalds does. Others argue that Starbucks has managed to keep its heart and its aesthetics even
as it rakes in billions. The truth lies somewhere in-between. As an employer, Starbucks is good but not great. The company pays its full-time "barristas" okay, but most of its employees work part-time, and its much-celebrated health-benefits for part-time workers don't compensate for salaries a few dollars above the minimum wage. Starbucks offers just enough in cash and perks to ensure a middle-class ambiance for its customers, but not enough to provide a middle-class life-style for its workers. But it beats Wal-mart, so don't complain, right?

As a cultural taste-maker, you can be sure Starbucks will seek its own kind, off-center artists who have righted themselves and are ready to scale up, to exchange real intimacy for the intimacy of the focus
group. Starbucks will not "strike through the mask" or go after any white whales. The company that rejected Springsteen's "Devils and Dust" for the saucy content of one of its songs means not to trouble
the mind too much. Ironically, this means the company will probably never offer "Moby Dick," from which it draws its name.