28 August 2010

Good Big vs. Bad Big

Anyone who has talked with me, or followed anything I have been saying on Facebook in the last few months, probably knows that I have become interested in James Howard Kunstler. Not an unhealthy sort of interest, but an interest in his viewpoints and how they mesh or define my own thoughts on everything from where I live, to what I eat. One of Kunstler's areas of focus is New Urbanism. One small aspect of this movement is the redesign of public and private space to a human scale. In his opinion, with which I agree, American fascination with automobiles following WWII led the country to invest in an infrastructure based on a vehicular scale. This spawned suburbs, strip malls and endless miles of asphalt freeways and parking lots. Virtually everything, from corporations to cultural centers have followed this philosophy of cookie cutter designs on a large scale. Along the way we forgot how to design our living and community spaces to satisfy the innate sensibilities of human beings, because the automobile plays such a central role in daily life. Kunstler delivers a very sound argument for a return to human scale in virtually all walks of life.

So my question is simply this. "Is big always bad, or can something be big and good?"

I decided to offer up an example of a company that in my opinion is both big and good. Starbucks!

I can almost hear the laughter and exclamations of disbelief as I write that. Most people think of Starbucks as the epitome of corporate homogenization in America. I would venture to guess that after McDonald's, Starbucks is probably most associated with corporate hegemony on a global scale. All of which is a largely undeserved reputation.

Several years ago, a local news publication, with a decidedly counter-culture persuasion, ran an article on Starbucks in Portland. We have dozens of them. The gist of the article was to take the most common complaints about Starbucks and analyze them against the facts. As much a the paper wanted to join in the bashing, they concluded that these urban legends about Starbucks just did not check out. For example. One of the leading complaints was that Starbucks, like all global corporations, kills locally owned "mom and pop" businesses. The article compared the number of locally owned coffee shops in Portland before the first Starbucks opened, with the then current number. They found an increase by several hundred percent. The conclusion was that Starbucks effectively created a market much larger than had previously existed. Plus, Starbucks puts millions of dollars back into the communities it serves in everything from school programs to public works, something most local shops could not afford to do. Systematically the other myths of the evil empire fell apart. Starbucks is criticized for not buying "certified free trade beans." They actually developed their own growing networks, pay similar prices for beans as CFT mandated rates, and work closely with their growers on sustainability issues. Health care? Employees who work 20 hours a week have access to full coverage at highly competitive prices. Wages? Starbucks pays above minimum plus tips. They also offer 401k, tuition reimbursement, management training etc., Again all is available to part time employees. The article reluctantly concluded that Starbucks was not deserving of the hate and scorn it received, (Starbucks were and are routinely vandalized by assorted activists in the Portland area).

(Link to original article: http://wweek.com/story.php?story=5137)

All of this might be interesting, but why do I think Starbucks is more good than bad?

My opinion is based on much more individually scaled factors. I spend a lot of time in a vehicle for work and I have to juggle research and academic work with my paying work schedule. To this end, there is always a table and free WiFi within a block or two of my location. Starbucks has become my defacto office. Plus, exceptionally clean restrooms. I joke that I sometimes leave my own home to go use the bathroom at Starbucks.

Thirsty? Ice water in a large, covered cup is free for the asking, anytime. Tea (iced or hot) has free refills, which is great for those four hour writing sessions. I have NEVER been asked to buy anything as a condition of being in a Starbucks, or pressured to give up a table except at closing time. I cannot say this about local shops which need to turn tables to stay in business. I do not like coffee. Sounds weird, but I never developed the taste. I do need to be awake at strange hours for long periods of time. Starbucks did not ridicule my situation, they just created a supercharged sugar and coffee milkshake they call a Frappacino. I am grateful.

I also respect Starbuck's attempts to blend into their surroundings. Unlike big box retail chains that come with fifty acre parking lots and their own freeway interchange, Starbucks is more a willing tenant than development catalyst. Nobody builds a shopping center because Starbucks indicated they would go into it. The reason that a lot of their shops look like strip mall store fronts is that they are in strip malls. The one that I frequent in Portland's cultural district is a warm, inviting, and cozy little shop nestled into the ground floor of a condo tower. Ditto elsewhere with everything from stonework, dark wood, and fireplaces to overstuffed chairs and terraces blending the shops into local design schemes. As for audio aesthetics, I happen to like their music selections so I enjoy the sound tracks most of the time as well.

The list goes on but you get my point (I hope). Despite this long post on a relatively trivial subject, there is actually a much easier way to make my point. Walk into a Starbucks sometime and sit down for awhile. Then leave and immediately go to a Wal Mart and sit in their "cafe." See what I mean. Good Big vs. Bad Big.

(No local shops were harmed in the development of my opinion. I still thinks Floyd's has the best Mexican Hot Chocolate bar non!)

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