Starbucks Is Still the Third Place to Be

So It's Let Itself Go a Little -- But Where Else Can You Lingle?

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So I was reading the Howard Schultz memo, and it hit me: He's right! I haven't smelled real coffee beans in a Starbucks for ages! And the baristas don't
Sure, our other living room doesn't smell like coffee anymore, but where else can we go. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Sure, our other living room doesn't smell like coffee anymore, but where else can we go. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below. Credit: Greg Palmer
make the espresso themselves -- they press the button and here's your soulless coffee. No wonder they don't look as happy as they used to. They're drones! And then they're selling these breakfast sandwiches made with pre-cooked eggs that look straight out of Blimpie, and they give you a pre-packaged blip of cream cheese that barely covers your bagel -- how tacky is that? And why does everyone always screw shut the milk container? It's there to pour out the milk, right? So why do we have to keep unscrewing it? Calling Howard -- leave it open!

You know how sometimes a passing remark can have an unduly large impact on your life? (Like the time my friend told me my college boyfriend was so cute that I stayed with him another three years thinking, "Why throw out a cute one?" even though he was actually not that cute.) That's what the Schultz memo was like. It changed the way I saw things with my own eyes.

I spent the next week just loathing Starbucks. Gleefully, I noticed that the bathroom at the Starbucks nearest me had no coat hook. The toilet paper was on top of the dispenser instead of inside it. The front half of the soap dispenser was actually lying on the floor. That nailed it for me: Starbucks had become as depressing as McDonald's. "You deserve a break today," said I to myself. "Leave!"

So I did. And then ...

I had no place else to go.

No place but home or work, that is. But like an estimated 30 million Americans, according to a Yankelovich study, I wanted to be in a "third place." A place where I could hang out, be part of the stream of life and (this is very important for those of us who work at home) read without falling asleep.

Long ago -- say, 15 years back -- our third-place choices were pretty slim. There was the library, where you couldn't talk. The diner, where you couldn't really read (and had to tip). Bars were a sad place to be during working hours. And the gym (for me) was sadder. Of course, there were always the town squares, where young lovers paraded arm in arm and old men fed pigeons. Unfortunately, those were all in other countries. America just didn't have a public gathering spot, except for the mall. Gag me with an Auntie Anne's pretzel.

Then along came Starbucks, and suddenly we had the kind of public life we hadn't had since the death of Main Street. People lingered, mingled. They lingled.

Moreover, unlike McDonald's, which killed off an indigenous American burger culture, Starbucks didn't have to kill anything to achieve its hegemony. Maybe it squeezed out a few independent coffee shops here and there. But it probably was responsible for the birth of far more.

With this cafe culture -- even this somewhat homogenized, corporate cafe culture -- came a new way of life. At first, it was almost an illicit thrill to buy coffee that cost as much as a vote. (I'm from Chicago.) But once I got used to it, I became a Starbucks person, with the card and the lingo and the addiction and everything. I made it my meeting place, study hall and place to kill time between other places. To have that kind of a sanctuary where no one gets mad at you for overstaying your welcome and the rent is paid with a cup of coffee -- it made me feel rich.

That's why it really doesn't matter if McDonald's wins a coffee taste test or Dunkin' Donuts is on a roll. Those places gave us fast food. Starbucks gave us an extra living room. If it spruces up a bit, brings back the coffee smell and gives us just a little more cream cheese, it will remain the place America goes to lingle.

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Lenore Skenazy is a journalist who lives in New York.
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