Let’s start with the end –Starbucks (by Pearl: “The Adventures of an American Academic in Paris”)

{nous avons cité ce Blog back in 2010}

Today, I had to fill about 45 minutes prior to a dentist’s appointment; for once, I was a bit early and he was running late, so I went around the corner to a nearby Starbuck’s to kill time with a grande drip.

See how quickly I have fallen back into “Starbuck speak”?

After I got my coffee, doctored it up, and sat with a book to read, I found myself instead watching the interplay within the shop. And I started to consider how this American cafe was different from a Paris cafe–as it obviously is–and what the geography and semantics of the shop demonstrated.

My first thought is that Starbucks (and much of modern consumer culture) owes a debt to the Romans, which it is probably unaware of. The Romans (as far as I know) invented the notion of “chaining,” of engineering urban sites for common actions that fit a constant, familiar pattern of architecture and organization. In other words, a Roman theatre looked the same inside and out whether it was located in Tunesia, France, Lebanon, or Rome (for the most part). Romans visiting a theatre anywhere throughout the Empire would feel at home, while colonized people would feel conquered. This holds true for Americans abroad in American-export chains: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks. Which is why some American tourists drop into the Starbucks cafes in Paris (a little reminder of home) and why some avoid it. This Starbucks I was in was familiar in that same sense, not only because I had been in it before, but because the architecture, interior decoration, and branding logos were like those found in any Starbucks, anywhere on the planet. If I had been dropped into it, blindfolded, by only question would be, where?

This is unlike the typical French cafe, which is a unique site. The French cafe is conventional in the sense that it usually (almost always) offers: many places to sit, usually tables and 4-legged chairs, but sometimes cushy chairs (but the footprint of each table-chair combination is small for maximum numbers), a bar, a kitchen in back, windows on the street and usually an outdoor seating area (usually, again, all-weather) where chairs face the street. However, each one is its own site, with individual decorating choices of colors, fabrics, etc. One recognizes a cafe as a cafe (or bistrot, or tabac, or brasserie), because of the opportunities for sitting and having a leisurely drink or meal.

These are actually two methods of getting to the same end: new places that seem familiar and encourage patronage through that appeal to familiarity.

Second, a Starbucks site is a shop, not a cafe. The cafe (area for sitting and enjoying coffee stuff on-site) within each Starbucks (or any other American cafe) is only a secondary site of enterprise. The main action is to sell. Not only coffee drinks to go (or stay) but everything else related to coffee- and tea-drinking. Witness:


Including the newspaper stand and cash register areas, I counted six distinct areas with stuff to buy, including books and CDs. Ironically, there were also six places to sit.

There were four little tables–lined up in a row–with two big soft chairs at the end of this row, on the right in a cubby and my chair, solo by the hall to the back. In this particular shop, the ambiance is not about sitting and reading, staying, taking your time and enjoying. That said, I have been in Starbucks where that is a larger part of the geography and where patrons (including me) lingered for hours; I go to one every Saturday morning to write.

Still, having been a recent patron of French cafes, I can note some significant differences with this version of coffee-drinking.

First, the French don’t do takeaway coffee. The Starbucks in Paris, for example, are still an anomaly and the only place I got takeaway coffee was McDonalds. Drinking coffee provides space and time eased into the day. Most people who come in to Starbucks take away, rather than sit, which brings coffee into nearly every activity Americans do. I take coffee in the car, into the classroom, into the movies, into Target, etc. Here, coffee has become the portable beverage.

Second, Starbucks allows you to have your beverage your way: half-caff, soy milk, no foam, etc. Drip coffee, latte, espresso, americano, etc. In Paris, one has a much more limited choice.

Third, the French do not buy ground or bean coffee in a cafe. They buy it at the grocery store or speciality shop: the actions of drinking and making are not overlapped in the same site. In a cafe, the French are buying (so to speak) a coffee and its enjoyment with a view, the waiter service, and time. In Starbucks, one buys coffee (prepared or for preparation) as its own product and the convenience of getting it. The French do not want to one-stop-shop; Americans love it. It is entirely a matter of how we look at time.



About jeanwadier

Writer editor translator curator @ paper.li jeanwadier
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1 Response to Let’s start with the end –Starbucks (by Pearl: “The Adventures of an American Academic in Paris”)

  1. jeanwadier says:

    Reblogged this on Une Tasse de Café à Paris.

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