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Meeting Someone at Starbucks? The Concept Has a Long History

The recent controversy surrounding Starbucks has historical roots of more than one kind.

By now, most people know about the arrest last month of two black men who were sitting quietly in a Philadelphia Starbucks. The incident touched on a cluster of social issues — cultural bias, the intersection of race and policing — with deep and thorny histories. Starbucks itself has highlighted some of these connections by pledging to close down stores later this month for an afternoon of implicit bias training with employees.

But the episode also highlights another history: Starbucks’ evolving identity as a “third place” distinct from home and work that invites people to gather and linger. At this moment of introspection, Starbucks might reflect not only on race and racism but also on its role in the cultural history of the coffee shop, one that the Internet and changing consumption habits have long since transformed.

The role of the coffee shop as a gathering space stretches back over centuries.

At the height of their empire in the 1500s, the Ottomans erected elaborate coffee houses with scenic views and lamps to illuminate evening coffee drinking, making them inviting places for visitors to linger and talk as they sipped their drinks.

Beginning in the 1650s after the death of Oliver Cromwell, the coffee house gained a central role in British politics as a space where dissidents gathered to ponder the nation’s fate. They soon became sites of more general discussion and debate, dubbed “penny universities”: a penny bought not only coffee but also intellectual stimulation.

Though merchants had carried coffee as well as tea across the Atlantic to North America in the late 1600s, the drink grew more popular first in the late 1700s, when Americans boycotted tea in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, and again in the early 1800s, when an embargo against Britain restricted tea imports. Consumption continued to rise throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.

By the 1950s, the coffee shops on which Starbucks would most closely model itself had begun to emerge: hip, countercultural spaces, often located in Italian immigrant neighborhoods, in which musicians, writers, and artists gathered. The shops popularized aspects of their owners’ Italian heritage — espresso, for instance — but also featured musicians from diverse backgrounds, often introducing them for the first time to middle-class patrons.

Starbucks deliberately rooted itself in this history.

Founded in Seattle in 1971, the company rose to prominence starting in 1987 when Howard Schultz, formerly in charge of retail sales and marketing, purchased the chain from its original owners and began its national expansion. Schultz linked his shops to coffee houses’ long tradition of community, conversation, intellectual debate, art, and oppositional politics, embracing the term “third place” — and publicly using it to describe Starbucks’ role — after sociologist Ray Oldenburg popularized the phrase in 1989. In keeping with Oldenburg’s definition, Schultz saw the third place as a site of community formation, one where people of all kinds met, talked, and experienced new ideas and perspectives.

As Starbucks mushroomed over the decades, critics would allege that the chain had actually sanitized the coffee house tradition — with no political gatherings allowed and “safe,” anodyne music rather than the radical folk musicians who played in 1950s coffee shops.

Nevertheless, the company continued to take seriously its mission to be a place of community and conversation. In the mid-2000s, in an attempt to reignite conversation in its stores, the company began printing quotes on its white take-away cups, featuring the words of writers, intellectuals, activists, and others in the hope that they would spark discussion. Similarly, in Philadelphia — the same city where the recent arrests took place — it celebrated Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday in 2006 with the “Ben Franklin Coffeehouse Challenge,” an initiative that sought to “recreate Franklin’s special brew of civic generosity” by encouraging customers to meet in its stores and discuss ways to improve their communities.

These efforts, however, pushed against some strong cultural headwinds. With the rise of wireless Internet and remote work, more and more people used coffee shops as a place to work or study rather than converse. The coffee shop became, essentially, a second workplace rather than Oldenburg’s third place. (Even the Philadelphia men at the center of the recent controversy, it is worth noting, were there for a business meeting.) This dovetailed with the increasing popularity of on-the-go coffee consumption, a trend Starbucks eventually embraced with more drive-throughs, and with stores that have limited or no seating space in places like airports.

So what does Starbucks’ past mean for its future?

For one thing, the company might re-conceptualize its aspirations to foster community, focusing rather on service — sponsoring community initiatives, encouraging customer and employee volunteerism —than on sparking intellectual discussion. The company already has a strong track record of such activities, but by tying them more explicitly to its core mission of community formation, the store could maintain continuity in its story without trying to fight recent trends in customers’ use of its stores.

By focusing on race equity with these activities, the store could also respond to the Philadelphia incident in a more proactive way — one that goes beyond the planned bias training for employees and addresses other concerns, such as the chain’s role in gentrification, that critics have expressed more prominently following the recent controversy

The company might also embrace the social meaning of Internet use in its stores. The Internet has become the 21st-century “third place,” with the kind of coffee house discussion of post-Cromwell Britain now taking place in social media. Ironically, many participants join these conversations from their perches at Starbucks, typing away on their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

A Starbucks story that celebrates this reality — finding continuity with centuries of coffee house history — might be a powerful one indeed.

Arielle Gorin, a Saybrook consultant, specializes in the history of the US and Canada. She is currently researching a history of the Ford Foundation.


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