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.