Bryant Simon

 

On his book Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks

Cover Interview of January 18, 2010

Lastly

Everything but the Coffee serves as a critical examination of Starbucks, looking at what it promises and what it actually delivers.  Not surprisingly, Starbucks does a better job at fulfilling the need for decent coffee.  When it comes to the desire for community, a cleaner environment, and a fairer global trade, what Starbucks customers get is more of a nod, a thin veneer of what they really want.  Many have left the brand, therefore, looking for more authentic ways to fulfill their desires.

But even more, the book was meant as a tribute to the classic coffeehouse, to those places where Samuel Johnson hung out a few hundred of years ago.  These places were dubbed “penny universities”—as opposed to $4 a pop virtual malls.

The English coffeehouse operated as a place where strangers could talk to one another and debate the issues of the day.  Everyday, shopkeepers and bankers, ditch diggers and lawyers, just about anyone, came to these places for coffee.  Everyone sat next to everyone else, heard the latest news, and together they talked.

Someone would literally read aloud from the papers.  Because the coffee cost only a penny and because the coffeehouse served as an informal place of learning, observers dubbed these institutions “penny universities.”  When the newspaper readers finished, the noisy, cantankerous debate started.  Intellectuals damned the government.  Conservatives damned the intellectuals.  And wits spread rumors and gossip and made fun of everyone.

Over time, the coffeehouse became also a sort of classroom—not just for sharing ideas but also for learning how to discuss and debate pressing issues with strangers.  “Informed men, some educated and some not,” coffeehouse expert Beau Weston noted, “would come together and talk about stuff”—literature, poetry, the economy, and politics.  “Having a place to do,” he explains, “enriches a culture.  It takes us out of the cocoon of private life and into the public world.  Cafes are important for creating a public life, particularly in a democracy.”

Ultimately, then, I want my book to trigger meaningful conversations—conversations about Starbucks, about buying, and about how to restore and invigorate civic life in this country at this moment when we perhaps need it the most.


© 2010 Bryant Simon