Column: Coffee homeground

By Sam Harding-Forrester

Like several readers, I had misgivings about the cartoon and title that ran with last week’s column. I regret any insult caused. Those who took offense at anything else in the column may continue to do so.

Our globe is officially lousy with Starbucks. The indomitable titan of corporate coffee now sullies 10,000 locations worldwide, a statistic more useful than any other in confirming the global entrenchment of yuppiedom. This steady ascent has been accompanied by telling transformations in the ubiquitous Starbucks logo. The image has evolved from a roughly drawn, busty melusine to a sexlessly symmetrical mermaid-zombie, bearing down on the world and wielding her tails like a pair of outstretched capitalist tentacles.

The Starbucks pitch is built around a slim clutch of signifiers for mocha-tinted sophistication, ornamentally scattered around stores otherwise displaying the sterile efficiency of a Borders without books. Starbucks’ espresso pullers are pompously christened “baristas”, and they serve up soggy muffins, dry bread cake and burnt coffee with an oppressive onslaught of professional cheer. The most egregious offense comes with their attempts at Frappuccinos, which are standardized by Starbucks into sweet synthetic phlegm. These liquid fiascos are inflicted to the tune of a formidably banal selection of music, drenching the air in plaintive acoustics well suited to those patrons professing their love for “expresso.”

Like a missionary descending to the heathens from on high, Starbucks now has designs on Champaign-Urbana. Our town’s first Starbucks, which opened last summer, is shortly to be joined by two additional stores. This development reflects the Starbucks management’s realization that Chicagoland youngsters who frequent the suburban outlets will suffer withdrawal when they head south for college. And the strategy, thus far, is a resounding success. Green Street’s Starbucks is engulfed by nightly plagues of students, who come in numbers far exceeding those found in competing local establishments.

Many have taken considerable umbrage at this swift capitulation to the Starbucks juggernaut, and dissent is not limited to those overlapping cliques committed to either Marx or the Authentic Coffeehouse Experience. For locals, the new Starbucks is the latest imposition perpetrated on behalf of Chicagoland students. The store’s prime beneficiaries are those brazen impostors who careen through campus on four-year rampages of self-discovery, claiming Chambana’s culture and politics as their own while loudly opining that it can’t hold a candle to Chicago’s sewers.

Yet the Starbucks invasion is particularly frustrating because better local alternatives have always been present. The Espresso Royale caf‚s provide a vibrant environment in which to thwart study plans with conversational banter. The Green Street Coffeehouse offers superb study space and the richest gelato available on campus. Their storefront seating also allows for evening observation of the groggy luminaries who line up to enter “It’s Brothers,” and who inexplicably choose to exit that establishment before drunkenly divulging their dinner on the street. Meanwhile, for those willing to wander off campus, downtown Champaign boasts the definitive Cafe Kopi.

It might seem disingenuous to draw political contrasts between these “local” establishments and our new global nemesis. Claims that Starbucks is a uniquely pernicious spawn of capitalism have always reeked of far-left neuroticism. And the aforementioned Green Street Coffeehouse, after all, is now shackled with the absurd moniker “Bar Giuliani,” having recently been acquired by an eponymous venture capitalist with an unfortunate penchant for self-reification. But even Giuliani and the Espresso Royale chain enjoy a privileged relationship with our campus community. To enter these caf‚s is to participate in something compellingly particular to local existence.

To enter a Starbucks cafe, by contrast, is to abandon the idea of the local and particular altogether. A Chicagoland friend describes a Naperville street plagued with three identical Starbucks stores, each visible from the others as if to create a grand consumerist hall of mirrors. Patrons planning a rendezvous rarely specify a store, instead gazing across the street from their chosen caf‚ in case the expected friends have a different idea. But “chosen” and “different,” in this ludicrous context, are comically impoverished terms. It should be in the interests of everyone in this town to avoid replicating such craven tomfoolery.

Sam Harding-Forrester is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]