Coming to terms with being human.


The Culture of the Siren

Today I sat in a local café that did not have a Starbucks across from it. I prefer local coffeehouses to chains. Chainhouses never seem to develop the same amount of character that individual cafés take to themselves. Though I lean towards the locals I am not a purist.
A good friend of mine most definitely is a purist. He will not enter a Starbucks, not even to sit with friends, much less to purchase anything. I am aware of a great many people of the café purist persuasion. Google “Starbucks AND hate OR sucks” and you will receive some 123,000 hits.
What is it about the Siren that breeds contempt? One could site the economic abuse of bean harvesting workers but Starbucks isn’t alone in exploiting the common man. Others may point out Starbucks’ sick need to run out the competition by placing stores adjacent to local cafes. Out of the two options, I believe, the latter points towards the truth.

Cafés are breeding grounds for culture. Culture as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary is “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought”. I do not agree with this definition in totality but it will work for now. Cafés are never just businesses. By providing a space to linger in, cafés create ideonodes (discussed in my 9.11.2003 post). CoffeeHOUSES are often just that, surrogate homes, especially for the regulars.
In some ways cafés are more important to society than real homes. Cafés are a meeting place of unrelated individuals. Each patron has her own social circle, unrelated to those around her. If an interesting idea passes around the room, it is bound to leave the tight group of friends it originated in and enter a new social circle. Trends, information, and the like spread through societies in this manner.
Culture includes the medium through which one accepts information. Religious people trust information more when gained through their places of worship. They also become emotionally attached to the particulars around them, forming traditions. Café enthusiasts often gain pleasure from being part of “coffee culture”. This coffee culture is often equated with the values of a supposed counterculture. When a place fuses with one's values it becomes worthy of protection.

By openly attacking local coffeehouses, Starbucks is confronting a culture. Originally, Starbucks was part of this culture. It was accepted as a Seattle coffeehouse that made good. There is an internal conflict within coffee culture however. A traditional counterculture value is a general mistrust of big business although cafes are in themselves buisnesses. As Starbucks continued to succeed, the fact of its’ business nature outranked its’ coffeehouse status. Then the cross-corner Starbucks began to emerge. This blatant assault on local cafés pushed many people into purist status. Starbucks was ejected from coffee culture proper and is now its’ own culture: a culture that, in the numbers war, is winning.

So why write this? Well, definitely not because I think things will change. I am just fascinated by the idea of culture. How do group values form and how much provocation will cause a person to defend the group? If any reader would like to put his two cents in, email me using the feedback link. I might even post your stuff.


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