Corporate whores make good

Early last week while traversing an arduous early-morning whiskey-tinged fog, trying desperately to prepare myself for a day of classes and work I made a rather serious error in social judgment. Halfway down Hawthorne, just blocks from my house, I compromised principle for need and stopped at Starbucks for a much-needed caffeine fix. I know their coffee sucks, it’s burnt and acidic and too hot, but when you’re as hopelessly addicted to the sweet brew as I am and running as late as I was it’s really quite passable.

It seemed like a totally valid decision, but just as I was about to step through the door, and ideally out of my fog, compromise in hand, I was jolted into full awareness by a cry of “Starbucks sucks you yuppie!” I looked up just in time to see two beautiful Portlanders, nearly as disheveled as I, speed by on their custom fixies congratulating each other for being so fiercely independent. And as I forged on into the store, cursing under my breath and imagining the cyclists reveling in my shame, giving powerful high fives, laughing, kissing while gliding effortlessly over the Hawthorne Bridge, it dawned on me – it takes more than bad coffee to illicit such righteous fury so early in the morning. People really hate Starbucks. To many it represents a huge evil, an actual blight – which is silly, because despite its many faults Starbucks is good for Portland.

Starbucks represents not just coffee, but an entire culture. It’s how the corporation has achieved its success – by offering a complete leisure line, magazines, games and music. It creates a sense of community among patrons that is at times both homogenizing and attractive. It’s consistent, simple and contrived – everything the open-minded and fiercely independent Portlander hates. In fact, hating on Starbucks has become a culture unto itself. When the monolithic corporation dared open a location on Southeast Division Street, located centrally among the fierce individualists, it was met with vandalism, protests and even a (sorry) attempt at firebombing. And why? Because we don’t like burnt coffee?

To begin with, there is the economic impact of having Starbucks in Portland – they employ your sorry ass. We live in a city where the only jobs you can get with an English degree from PSU are service jobs and with more than 150 stores in the region, Starbucks offers many positions to our privileged alumni.

Beyond that, however, the actual culture of coffee in Portland benefits from the existence of Starbucks. Where there’s partisanship there’s competition. Starbucks’ shitty quality and homogenizing culture creates a need for awesomeness in its competitors. Which is not to say that the existence of Starbucks mitigates the existence of Stumptown or Tiny’s, but Starbucks is responsible for setting the bar of coffee culture low, thus giving local roasters and baristas something to strive against.

The often-emulated Starbucks strategy of buying semi-successful coffee chains at a corporate level and subsequently closing them has created opportunities for many local stores to occupy premium retail spaces. For the consumer this means an impressive variety of businesses where before the choices were limited to a number of corporate options. Where the Starbucks-owned Seattle’s Best Coffee stood on Southwest Sixth and Alder now stands the tropical-themed Island Joe’s, which is inarguably more interesting in its scope than the dreary former inhabitant. As other corporations follow Starbucks’ lead, closing Tully’s and Coffee People at an alarming rate, we get new Three Lions Bakery locations and the amazing Balvo. Before, our morning options were stale bagels and greasy croissants, but now we get fresh-baked breads and high-end Italian food.

Without Starbucks and its stale corporate culture we’d be stuck wondering if blended coffee drinks were in fact totally lame or maybe kind of delicious. We’d really have to debate if Cat Power’s new album was really as adult contemporary as it sounds or if we we’re just being assholes. Know thy enemy and realize it’s just a coffee shop. Protest wars and environmental disasters, not lattes. Aim your fierce independence elsewhere. And quit yelling at me, I’m hung over and I don’t want to hear it.