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Starbucks as a public place

the 2008 book "Wrestling With Starbucks," in which the labor advocate Kim Fellner considers the ethical pros and cons of being one of the company's many customers; it is hard to imagine a similar book about, say, Dunkin' Donuts, let alone California Pizza Kitchen.)

In this debate, the element of the Starbucks idea that matters is the frequently made observation that the chain doesn't really sell coffee; it sells an experience. That experience is the comfortable cafe, a spot where can you commune with the like-minded, luxuriate in your private thoughts and if not actually strike up conversations with interesting strangers, at least entertain the fantasy that this could happen. It has been recorded many times that Starbucks holds itself out as a "third place" -- not home, not work, but a space where community members can come together and feel comfortable.

The "third place" notion, and the term, come from Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist whose 1989 book, "The Great Good Place," argued for the importance of informal gathering spots -- the English pub, the Viennese cafe -- as crucial locations of community-binding that need to be maintained. It seems fair to say that Starbucks is not what he had in mind. (And in reality, a reported 80 percent of what is bought at Starbucks is carried out and consumed someplace else.) But the company hasn't been shy about putting forward a version of this idea that seeks to elevate it above mere profit-seeking rivals. Last summer, for instance, following reports that some coffee shops were cracking down on idlers who soak up hours of free wi-fi and don't do much actual coffee-buying, Starbucks reiterated that it had no such rules, specifically because it was devoted to "making the third-place experience for every Starbucks customer."

Published: March 22, 2010
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