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CAMBRIDGE | Urban Diary

Confessions of a Starbucks regular

Email|Print| Text size + By Alison Lobron
December 30, 2007

Two minutes from my condo in Cambridge is a cathedral of guilt - that is to say, a Starbucks. Since I consider myself a supporter of independent businesses, the proximity of Starbucks means that every day I have the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is, to live by my principles, to be the agent of change I wish to see in the world.

I keep passing up these opportunities.

For one thing, Starbucks is so much closer than any of the independent coffee shops. I can pop in when I'm already late for work, and I'll be just two minutes later. I can visit between loads of laundry. I can go with my laptop and (almost) always find a table. But here's the part that's really guilt-inducing: I like Starbucks better than some of the independents. With its corner spot overlooking Harvard Law School, it has more seating, better coffee, and better lighting than its nearest competition a few blocks away on Mass. Ave.

Still, it's difficult to confess my fondness for this massive conglomerate. Like most of us (perhaps, particularly, most of us in Cambridge) I want to feel unique, to believe that my tastes can be satisfied only by that which is real and authentic. But, apparently, what appeals to me - those ubiquitous sage-velvet armchairs, the muted lighting, the long window counter with plenty of plugs for laptops - is exactly what appeals to most people in my demographic, and what important people in large corporate offices have determined will appeal to us.

The little brochures near the milk describing Starbucks's various altruistic initiatives in the Third World just make things worse. I know the point of those cheerful fliers is to convince consumers like me that we aren't making the world a more vicious place by frequenting this coffee juggernaut. Sure, the independent coffee shops up the street may be struggling, but look how happy the Costa Rican coffee growers are! Starbucks has cracked the code of my concern - just as it has cracked the code of my caffeine and atmospheric needs.

But these brochures - just a little too Brave New World for me - renewed my determination to caffeinate elsewhere. For about a week, I succeeded - mostly. But I also discovered that the Porter Square area desperately needs another coffee shop or six to accommodate all the students, the friends, and the couples on daytime first dates.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a friend and I couldn't find a seat in Simon's or Porter Square Books, and the line at Hi-Rise stretched halfway to Costa Rica (not really, but you get the idea). We loitered a little while in the doorways, reading fliers for yoga classes, but too many pale-looking students appeared to be hunkered down for the entirety of the semester, if not their whole college careers. So - you guessed it - we defaulted to Starbucks, albeit with some of our guilt assuaged. We had tried to go elsewhere. We had earned our tall lattes.

Therein lies the challenge to what David Brooks has called "conscientious consumption": It is always a little easier, and often a little cheaper, to default to a chain - especially when the chain is so, well, pleasant. But the more we default, the more we then scratch our heads and wonder why there are so few independent businesses left - and why the locally owned coffee shops that are hanging in there are so short on square footage and seating.

I suspect that psychiatrists of the future will coin a term for this particular brand of guilt, and the justifications that follow from it: Consumer-Morality-Angst, perhaps, or just the "Starbucks complex." I'll leave the terminology (and the cure) to the professionals, but in the hopes of encouraging some local entrepreneurs to open those six essential new coffee shops, I'm going to try a little harder to bypass Starbucks.

It's a tall order, for sure. No, make that a grande.

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