Bryant Simon


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

Cover Interview of January 17, 2010

A close-up

On page p. 90 of Everything but the Coffee there is the start of a rather long riff on bathrooms that captures the way in which corporate powers, posing as public service providers, have taken advantage of the privatization of life.  In other words, this is how larger public voids get turned into private moneymaking ploys.

In many ways, bathrooms are an essential part of Starbucks’s value proposition, especially for urban customers.  But this is true because of our atrophied public sphere.

Numerous times while doing field work in New York, I watched as groups of women and men in Northface coats—displaying their upper-middle-class styles—walked into a store.  Two went right to the bathroom, two got in the drink line, and two just stood there.  When the friends reassembled, they had purchased a couple of lattes and a muffin.  Starbucks, then, got eight dollars to rent out its bathroom.

The Northface brigades usually head straight to Starbucks, bypassing McDonald’s and Wendy’s, the bus station and public library. Surely, they know from prior experience that the coffee company keeps its bathrooms generally clean and well stocked.  So did the editors of the Portland Phoenix.  “We’ll come out and say it,” they wrote in the 2005 edition of the weekly alternative paper’s best of the year awards.  “We don’t much like multinational corporations.”  But when it came to grime and yellowy funk, they put aside their politics.  “Starbucks,” they told readers, “has the cleanest bathrooms for us germaphobes.  There’s just something pristine about those Starbucks bathrooms.  Hypocritical, but when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go (and sometimes, we don’t even really buy anything).”  But sometime, then, they do.

Paco Underhill studies bathrooms, and to a certain extent gender, in retail spaces.  Trained by the great city-watcher William Whyte as an anthropologist, he skipped out on academia and largely invented what he calls the “science of shopping.”  These days, he gets paid a king’s ransom to watch what people do in stores, how they move, where they stop, and what makes them move on.  Bathrooms, he mentions, can be crucial.  His research has taught him that most customers, especially women, will pay a premium for products paired with bathrooms “with a clean baby-changing table and a working sink and trash can that isn’t spilling all over the floor.”

Clearly Underhill and Starbucks were on the same page when it came to bathrooms.  With its spacious, sparkling clean, and nicely appointed bathrooms, the coffee company informs customers that it cares, even if it costs a little extra to keep these places spick-and-span.  In this equation, customers repay Starbucks’ kindness with coffee purchases and word-of-mouth praise.

Once again, Starbucks adds to its business as a result of the tattering of the older social contract. Rutgers University geography professor Wansoo Im maps bathrooms.  Great cities, he told a New Yorker reporter, have lots of public toilets.  Paris does, and so does Tokyo.  And New York did.  In the 1930s, officials constructed a wide network of public restrooms. By the 1970s, pushed and pulled by crime and a budget crisis, city leaders cut funding for these bathrooms. But visitors, workers, shoppers, and walkers still need toilets, so they have to search for them in semi-private places, like Starbucks. A reporter once asked New York mayor Michael Bloomberg why the city doesn’t have more public bathrooms. We don’t need them, he responded.  “There’s enough Starbucks that’ll let you use the bathroom.”

Starbucks, however, isn’t a public space.  While it appears to offer equal access, in reality, it serves the needs of only some—another hallmark of the privatization of daily life and unequal distribution of resources that goes with these changes.  People are always saying—often complaining—that Starbucks is everywhere. But it isn’t.  Going back to the New York example, a Starbucks store sits on just about every Midtown corner and along every Village square.  But there isn’t a Starbucks in the largely African American and Latino areas of the city above 125th Street, and neither is there one close to the projects by the Coney Island Boardwalk.  There isn’t one in the Bedford-Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn, either.  More than 1.3 million people live in the Bronx, and Starbucks operates less than a handful of stores in the borough. Manhattan, on the other hand, has only two hundred thousand more residents yet has two hundred more Starbucks.  It is the better-off Bobos who have the better public bathrooms.

Even inside the stores, Starbucks isn’t so public.  In the early years of the century, most Manhattan Starbucks locked their bathroom doors.  To use the bolted facilities, you had to ask for a key.  This seemed to be no problem for college kids in ski jackets or white college professors like myself.  We ask for the key, no questions asked.

But for the homeless and for people of color—especially unattached men—things aren’t so simple and easy.  Several times I have seen African American men go up to the counter for the key.  Giving the man the once-over, the manager or the shift supervisor hesitates and says, “Have you bought anything? The bathrooms, you know, are for customers only.”  Every once in a while, I saw a homeless person walk in and jiggle the bathroom handle.  If it was locked, either he waited for the person to come out and grabbed the door before it shut, or he left. He didn’t waste his time asking for a key.  Again, no matter what it says in its corporate social responsibility reports, Starbucks doesn’t operate its stores for the public good.

They rent bathrooms to people who will pay four dollars for a latte or fit the profile of someone who can afford to.