August 10, 2006
Staying Starbucks-Free in St. Charles

One of the things I loved about the University of Chicago when I studied there some 20 years ago was the fact that every faculty had its own coffee shop. On a freezing Chicago day, when the wind cut across the Midway like a knife, you knew you could pop into any university building and find a haven of hot coffee and snacks. What I loved about these coffee shops is how each one seemed to reflect the spirit of the academic subject taught in that building: the Classics building coffee shop had big old comfortable leather couches surrounding a neo-gothic fireplace and home-made chili. The Humanities building had hard bright plastic chairs, but every variety of herbal tea known to man. The Geology building had stark florescent lighting and truly awful coffee.

When I left the oasis of Hyde Park, I was delighted to discover that it wasn't just a University of Chicago phenomenon: the North side of the city, where Barrett and I were roommates, also had loads of great coffee shops, where you could meet friends or just escape from the Chicago weather for an hour or two. Often, the coffee shop was combined with a bookstore, making it just about the perfect combination in my mind. We didn't have quite the extraordinary selection of skinny, latte, double espresso, soy-milk iced coffees that you find in a Starbucks. But there was some good coffee available nevertheless. And each shop had its own character and mood.

My boyfriend at the time, a Seattlite, complained long and loud about the lack of a Starbucks or a "proper" Italian coffee shop. (I seem to recall the ex-boyfriend remarking sniffily truck drivers in Washington state demanded better coffee than could be had in Chicago.) We were humbled in the face of his sophisticated certainty. And so we were all excited when the first Starbucks appeared in Chicago. At last we would be able to taste that ambrosia of good coffee. Although I went along with my friends in saying it was the best coffee ever and a really good thing (I was young after all) I didn't really find it all that much better than my usual haunts. The Starbucks (notice how quickly that became plural?) were all pretty hip looking and had comfortable chairs and - like McDonald's - you knew that the product and selection would be the same in every location.

Then the rumours started circulating about one of my favourite coffee shops, Scenes. Scenes combined a theatrical bookstore and a coffee shop and although it wasn't the best coffee in the city it had a great atmosphere. The waiters and waitresses were friendly and you could pick up a book and sit for hours with the bottomless cup, reading or talking to friends. But rumour had it that Starbucks was offering the landlord of the building twice the rent Scenes paid for the space. And a few months later, Scenes was no more and a gleaming green Starbucks logo was in its place. By then, I was no longer living in Chicago. But I couldn't help noticing how each time I returned to visit Chicago, there were fewer independent booksellers and coffee shops and more Starbucks and Borders. Back in the early 90s you could visit 20 or more used bookstores and an equal number of independent coffee shops in a very small radius. Now I can name about three of each.

I didn't immediately decide to boycott Starbucks. Business is business after all, and they were obviously delivering a good product that simply succeeded better than others. And then I read No Logo, by Naomi Klein. I read about the Starbucks strategy (which many others soon mimicked) of saturating a neighborhood with more Starbuck's cafés than the area could support, thus driving out the competition and leaving only Starbucks. Even if one out of two cafés ultimately closed doors, they had eliminated the others in the field. That is truly evil. And so I have been Starbucks-free for a few years now. I don't want to give them my money and I like supporting small business owners.

But I've noticed on this trip that it's getting harder and harder to avoid Starbucks. The coffee is served on the plane I fly to Chicago. It's in the Target coffee shop where we went shopping the other day. At the train station, when I asked if the coffee shop had iced coffee, the fellow behind the counter directed me to the bottles of Starbucks iced lattes in the refrigerator. (The Critic, who thinks I'm a little obsessive on this issue, tried one: it was tooth-achingly sweet.)

So where will it all end? Will Starbucks coffees start marching into my home and lining up in front of the fridge? Will it become impossible to consume coffee anywhere in the city without seeing that darned green mermaid? Will I have to give up coffee altogether? Because it's starting to look that way. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to stay Starbucks-free in St. Charles, IL.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at August 10, 2006 7:55 AM Print-friendly version

It's funny that one of the casualties of the coffee revolution has been the loss of a place where you can sit all afternoon and drink coffee.

Starbucks look comfortable, but aren't, not for any appreciable length of time. And if you have to keep paying for another, and another, and another refill, well, it gets expensive to sit and read the newspaper.

One of the things I miss about Evanston is that it's one of the few places I've lived where I felt like I could sit all day at a coffee shop. Sure, there are three Starbucks there, but there are also six independent coffee shops (and a diner) in downtown Evanston. Such places still exist there: I used to sit for three, four hours sometimes poring over a newspaper and talking with my friends at the Italian Coffee Bar, at Sherman and Grove, in case you're in the area.

I suspect things will swing back the other way someday, too. More local coffee shops will open. But the days of bottomless coffee are probably dead, except where full meals are served.

Posted by Wes Meltzer on August 10, 2006 at 2:22 PM

I live in the U.S. midwest and we just don't have many coffee shops of any kind around here. By now, if we started getting some, they'd be Starbucks I'm sure. Almost everything we have (stores, restaurants, whatever) is a chain or franchise.

I've had the bottled Starbucks frappucinos. The mocha and coffee flavors are okay, but the vanilla is so sweet it makes me almost ill. The one time I went to Starbucks, I had a "real" frappucino, which was even sweeter and I couldn't drink it. It was like straight bosco over ice. So I don't even know why the Starbucks product is so popular.

Posted by Stacia on August 10, 2006 at 4:58 PM

My wife and I just moved to Everett, WA, wich is about 20 minutes north of Seattle, birthplace of Starbucks. They are literally on every block up here. The odd thing is that there are still a lot of these little street corner vendors who have drive up service, and we have actually found several little cafes that have free wireless internet where you can go for an afternoon, sit down, drink some coffee, have a donut, chat with the owner, and check your email.

I'm not even a fan of Starbucks coffee. In my opinion it is way too bitter.

Posted by Rhuarc on August 11, 2006 at 4:59 AM

I remember going to my first Starbucks, 11 years ago in Lincoln Park. Then I moved to Seattle and didn't go to a Starbucks because there were just so many little coffee stands that you could just drive through. They were great. These stands would have wonderful pastries, punch cards, and employees that really seemed to care about you.

Then I moved back to Chicago and Starbucks are on ever corner.

Now my husband and I drive out to St. Charles for the monthly flea market and beg for a Starbucks.

Posted by Stuccolow on August 11, 2006 at 10:18 AM

In the more rural part of Rhode Island where I live, there's only one coffee shop within 15 miles of my house, and it's a Starbucks -- but it's located in the only bookstore within 15 miles of my house. The bookstore is a big draw, and the coffee unavoidable. My Starbucks rebellion? I always order the old fashioned way -- small, medium, large.

Posted by Lydia on August 11, 2006 at 10:18 AM

Way back in some day immemorial, I'm sure Starbucks had good coffee. But as is the nature of any good-thing-gone-too-big, quality control is the first thing to go. Now, the coffee is super, super OLD (has to be to sustain the volume), so stale you can SEE it in the oily beans that they still (why?) display in some stores. I imagine that has to be why they've gone with that uber-sweet-with-whipped-cream-and-sprinkles-and-more syrup-on-top tactic, because neither the joe nor the espresso can stand on their own anymore. Plus, the stores are dirty, no one who works there really CARES....
I had the great privilege of working with a local roaster here in the Pac NW and we, EVERYONE who worked or bought there, took enormous pride in our product. We loved our people, we loved our regulars (90% of the clientele), and our product was outstanding. FRESH every day, because the owner woke up at 2.30 every morning to roast. When he refused to be bought out, a Starbucks opened up ONE BLOCK AWAY.
Evil is right......I fully support anyone who boycotts.
Although, they are reliable public bathrooms when you’re stuck downtown and really need to go.....

Posted by jeanette on August 11, 2006 at 11:59 AM

I only go to Starbucks when I am with a group of people and that is their choice of a place for coffee. I always order a cafe au lait which brings on an interesting discussion with the servers because they have no clue what that is - Starbucks calls it some fancy name that no where else in the world would recognize. On my own I know every independent coffee shop between my house and work which fortunately are quite a few. This is a beach city along with a couple of universities and many colleges which thankfully support independence. I like tables, mismatched chairs, couches, good scones, time to relax and read while sipping my coffee. Starbucks is just too corporate for that.

Posted by Maureen on August 11, 2006 at 7:04 PM

I see that you live in Paris & have roots in St. Charles, IL. Me, too! I enjoyed your article immensely & could certainly relate to your sentiments.

One thing in Paris that has surprised me greatly is that Starbucks are popping up all over the place! And not just tourists are pouring in....locals seem to love the place. I asked my french teacher WHY?! Why is Starbucks doing well here when you have interesting cafes, many historic or mod if you prefer, on every street corner that serve incredibly great coffee!! Her response didn't satisfy me: "just the latest formula" (meaning fad). Yikes. This fad I can live without. And I do quite happily!

Posted by Diane on August 15, 2006 at 9:03 AM

I see your point about Starbucks. But I live in a third world country where getting a decent cup of coffee is rare. Everyone uses instant and the one real coffee shop in the capital is often crowded and prices for some cakes are quite pricy for the local salary. This is why I relish Starbucks when ever I have the opportunity to visit one abroad. The standard is across board, so you know what you get at one outlet is the same as another outlet. Point taken about the squeezing others out of business, but Starbucks does do good coffee and cake.

Posted by Bendita on August 16, 2006 at 1:49 PM

Thanks for the reminder again. I mean, every day I know that I hate Starbuck's and yet there I find myself again and again (although 6 days out of 7, I drink Peet's at home). It's just so darn tricky the way they are everywhere when you need something really really fattening. Ack, they're taking over the world and loads of space in my jeans.

Posted by Sheri on February 23, 2007 at 2:16 PM
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