picture of box & stick trap w/ a coffee cup under it; box is building shaped and says "Ubiquitous Franchise Coffee Emporium"
I'm a caffeine addict. I love coffee.
Somewhere in my early twenties, I morphed from a casual user to one needing a daily morning fix. Now I sprinkle espresso beans on my granola. Really.
As a singer-songwriter for the Canadian pop group Moxy Fruvous, I've learned to happily depend on caffeine to enhance my stage presence. I wouldn't think of performing a show without a triple-shot Americano to calm my nerves. Our relentless live performance schedule across North America for the past five years has led me to search for every advantage and comfort to soften life on the road. In the process, I've found my drug of choice--just like a real rock star would.
Thus, you would think that being a touring musician during the height of a coffee culture boom would be ideal for me. That I'd be introduced to a variety of cool caffeinated sites where artists hang out in cities across the continent. That I could satisfy my addiction in trendy joints that reflect the indigenous cultures of the diverse communities I visit. But no.
The truth is that most of the "alternative" coffee shops I encounter on my travels are mirror images of each other. Cookie-cutter coffee sellers, if you will. It's no surprise. They're all owned by the same people. And they're all called Starbucks. I hate Starbucks.
Let me be clear: I don't hate Starbucks because it probably employs 4-year-olds to pick coffee beans for meager wages in South America. Too easy. I don't hate Starbucks because its inflated prices lead people to believe that an espresso is actually worth $3. Too obvious. I don't hate Starbucks because it appropriates symbols of youth pop culture to present itself as a hip alterno-cafe rather than the corporate chain that it is (and that in the process, it drives any truly independent coffee shop across the street out of business). Too insidious.
No, I hate Starbucks because it represents everything that I lament while touring in the new millennium--the homogenization of culture.
You'd have to be stuck at home watching far too much Home & Garden Television to have missed the Starbucks invasion of nearly every sizable city on the continent in the last couple of years. Most of us have been unable to escape the wildfire expansion of those green, black and indistinguishable structures that have invaded our favorite 'hoods.
As of this moment, there are three shiny new Starbucks progeny in the East Village of New York City. That's right, the East Village. Times Square and Broadway may have become one long-playing lame production of "Andrew Lloyd Webber Goes to Disneyland" but the East Village?! If there's one place that artists have always held as the paragon of creativity, expression and culture, that was it.
I fear I was born too late to experience the romantic vision of a bustling local cafe. What happened to the places where lovers could carve illegible names into the wall? Where misled youth could plot misled revolutions? Where Hemingway or Camille Paglia could get into a healthy ideological tiff? For God's sake, make me resort to scouring the Wal-Mart for the soundtrack as I rush to see "The Lion King" on Broadway, but don't close down the only real cafes in between.
Mind you, my coffee-centric lifestyle should not lead me to be myopic in laying blame. It's unfair to hold only Starbucks culpable for the increasing blandness of Western culture. Many other examples illustrate the same point.
I had a sad revelation while sitting in a Pizza Hut in Kansas City recently (I was there for research purposes only, of course). Surveying the familiar interior during lunch, I realized that there was nothing about that room that even remotely told me that I was in Kansas. In fact, I could have been in Calgary or Los Angeles or Ottawa. I would have experienced a more tangible dose of native Kansas culture by watching "The Wizard of Oz."
I feel like I've been robbed of what used to be one of the more sexy aspects of my profession. I wonder what it was like to tour North America before franchise monotony swelled to greet the New World Order. You know, the primeval days, like way back, like ancient times, maybe 25 years ago, before everything looked and smelled and tasted the same. Before KFC meant chicken and Nike meant athletic.
I know that I can still seek out restaurants and shops that contain local flavors of the communities I'm passing through. I can find the inimitable haunts of the Creole populace in New Orleans, or the Mormons in Utah, the punks in Portland, or the farming communities in Saskatchewan--and I do.
But it takes effort to step beyond the replicated corporate enterprises that line the major highways and urban centers of our continent. I wonder what it was like to have no choice but to experience the beautiful cultural diversity that exists out there. I imagine it was an adventure that didn't always feel so safe.
Maybe that's the point. For many people, it's more comfortable to dine within the mundane and recognizable walls of a nearby Subway than to test out an unknown local sandwich shop. Familiarity and provincialism are tendencies that are exploited by corporate chains. Why else would some North Americans feel the need to stop in at the Moscow McDonald's on their way to Red Square? But that doesn't explain why we can't locally support independent places that we can really make our own.
When I'm in Toronto, I prefer my little Riverdale video store to the monster Blockbuster Video outlet nearby. The charming old Vietnamese owner knows my name and lets me off the hook when I'm late with a return. I figure he trusts me because we live near each other. I like his unkempt and tiny store because it's so unique. He also has a significant section of Asian porn videos that I imagine satisfy a certain demographic specific to our community.
And when I need a coffee fix, I refuse to walk into any franchise at home or on the road. I'm a man of principle. I won't allow my yen for caffeine to cross my politics. No way. At home, it's easy. I stroll past the Starbucks on Danforth Avenue and right into the Joy of Java. Now there's an indie Canadian spot where I can hang out with impunity. Maybe I'll even wear my Calvin Klein jeans.
Jian Ghomeshi is a Toronto-based musician and producer who is best unapproached until he has had his morning coffee.