A Story About Co-optation.
As the reach of Starbucks swept across the entirety of the central city-- the familiar green sign on almost every streetcorner-- local observers were surprised to see a reversal of the trend: the opening of a new coffee shop! A coffee shop not like Starbucks at all.
On a cluttered sidestreet, the new business had dark psychedelic lighting splashing over darkly colorful wall hangings, accompanied by psychedelic music from 60's bands like Love, The Electric Prunes, and The Outsiders. No white walls or blonde wood anyplace! Thick walls covered by thick red and purple paint. No computer portals! On a table near an entrance, actual books of an old and dusty nature which one could read at rickety black tables by turning on muted reading lamps. Behind the counter: the curly-haired hippy proprietor; youthful; beaming; welcoming.
A hip young crowd eager for authentic difference quickly crowded the place. The proprietor looked upon them with bemusement as they strafed him with questions. "What do you think about the war?" they asked.
He gave them a smile of fascinated grace.
"I think it sucks," he told them matter-of-factly. "All wars suck." He poured a customer a coffee. "Whoa!" he told another person at a complicated order involving whipped cream and cherries. "What do you think this is? Keep it simple."
His customers loved him.
One evening they heard The Pixies then Siouxsie and the Banshees playing in the cafe. Find that at Starbucks!
A young couple named Jenny and Josh were among the best customers. Self-styled political activists, they loved the idea of real alternatives to corporate chains.
"Everything is a chain," Josh affirmed one evening. "Where are the local businesses? CVS; Applebee's; Kinko's. Decisions made on high by suits in corporate board rooms. Starbucks may be the worst of them, but it's not alone."
"This is such a great outpost," Jenny said. "The only independent coffeeshop in town!"
Josh and Jenny were among the special few allowed to join the proprietor, who was named Eli, in "The Den." The Den was a small room downstairs where the day-glo avant-garde motif, including green sofas, was even more intense. A few local students had been hired to allow Eli to take breaks. Unlike at Starbucks, employees wore no uniforms.
"This is just so, so great," Jenny gushed one evening to Eli. "Very unique. You should be proud."
"Yes, it's a great idea," Eli gently answered.
Much speculation existed among the customers about Eli. They knew he was from the far west. Some thought he was an artist; others, a writer. One person guessed Eli was likely a failed doctoral student; "He seems the type."
Eli's usual reply to questions about himself was a benevolent smile. The closest he'd come to describing his past or his education was a mention of a "training program." "He's a pioneer," Jenny had said. "That's all we need to know."
"What's your field?" Josh good-naturedly asked him now, curiosity burning a hole in him. "What's your education? How did you get into the coffee business? Do you enjoy it as much as you appear to?"
"Yes!" Eli answered. He fumbled for words. "I was kind of a vagabond. They gave me focus."
His eyes looked around the colorful room as his arms spread wide to take in his new friends.
"I'm gratified," he added.
"You should be!" Jenny told him, feeling extraordinary sympathy for the man. "This place is a smashing success. Everyone loves it. You have them in retreat in this town."
Eli was briefly confused. "Retreat? Who?" he asked.
"Well, you know," Jenny said. "Starbucks."
Eli laughed. "You mean you don't know? This is their idea. One of the first of its kind, which will be replicated around the country, exactly, I'm told: again and again. And again and again and again. This coffeeshop is owned by Starbucks."