Is Starbucks Stealing Our Mojo?
Austin Powers II: The Spy Who Shagged Me centers on Dr. Evil stealing Austin’s mojo (“the life force, the essence, the right stuff.”--- Dr. Evil) to render him ineffective and thus make the world ripe for domination. The plot is hatched in Dr. Evil’s headquarters, the Space Needle in Seattle; which happens to be decorated with the Starbuck’s logo. Is it coincidence that a plan to take over the world and steal mojo was conceived at a Starbucks? Perhaps not.
Rev. Billy’s Crusade
North 5th and Bedford in Williamsburg was the recent location of a protest led by Reverend Billy against Starbucks. Rumors had surfaced that construction on the corner was in preparation for a Starbucks franchise-right across the street from The Verb, a local coffee house. Rev. Billy is an anti-corporate crusader who protests at various corporate entity storefronts.
“Chain stores are the destruction of our neighborhoods,” Rev. Billy told me. “It destroys our sense of community.
Williamsburg especially is a crucial border. This is the last place in New York. Times Square has turned into Las Vegas East. Astor Place is what I call the Bermuda Triangle of consumerism. We cannot have chain stores in Williamsburg. Maintaining the local independent scene gives us stores made by humans [not corporations], which provides specificity to the business and incorporates the owner’s dreams, images, memories. It makes the store original. Corporations delete our memories and replace them with ones they create.”
The Starbucks rumors turned out to be rumors, however. The landlord and owner of the North 5th property in question arrived at the rally to explain to Rev. Billy that the store was not a Starbucks, but rather “Fabiane’s Café and Pastry –An Independent Pastry Experience.” Still, new rumors have replaced the old:
* Some people thought “Fabiane’s” was merely a cover and that Starbucks still owned the shop
* One person told me about a plot involving a local realtor and a city councilperson. Apparently, when opening a commercial establishment, there is a preset amount of time allowed for the public to comment before building can begin. The conspiracy involved circumvention of the comment step and approval of a license for a Starbucks to open in Williamsburg. The permit was pulled at the last minute due to suspected leaks.
* Another resident said he had talked to a waitress at The Verb who said, “Somebody had chickened out.” Apparently, she saw nice window casings put in at the location across the street, and then when the rumors began the nice windows came out. So the rumor might have been true. And then it wasn’t.
Rumors or not, Rev. Billy demonstrated in Williamsburg because he “honored the folk story. I respected that people were afraid. The fact that the rumors were virulent shows culture happening outside the corporate mindset. Most people want to believe that the malling of America is inevitable. Everyone also thought Communist countries would stay Communist. And then the Berlin Wall came down. Consumerism will be thrown off very soon. People understand the system is without value and that we have become extras from the Dawn of the Dead.”
Rev. Billy’s website (revbilly.com) displays a memo from Starbucks management to local stores about what to do in the event he protests.
Q: What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?
1. Treat him as any other customer and do not respond to his or her devotee’s antics.
2. Ask him politely to leave the store.
3. Call the police, if he does not leave.
4. Page your district manager and marketing
Starbucks (aka The Enemy)
“My feelings can’t get in the way of me taking over the world.” —Dr. Evil
Starbucks started in Seattle nearly 30 years ago as an independent store, much like the ones it is allegedly targeting now. Nowadays, this coffeehouse receives plenty of attention from anti-corporate and anti-globalism activists.
The company has been accused of: exploiting workers at Third World coffee plantations; using ingredients in their stores that are either genetically engineered or non-organic; employing union-busting practices abroad and at home, including the use of surveillance cameras at their processing plant in Pennsylvania to stop employees from organizing and purposefully seeking out local coffee shops and opening franchises across the street to drive the local shop out of business. There’s even a website for the anti-Starbucks campaign: purefood.org/Starbucks/starbucks.html.
To be fair, Starbucks is fulfilling the American dream of making it big. “They started out just like us,” said Laurence, co-owner of The Read. “Business-wise, they are brilliant. They took a mediocre product—coffee—and made it into a luxury item. It was genius. Their stores provide familiarity and ease of location. It’s business pure and simple.”
Attempts to contact Starbucks met with the following response:
Dear Starbucks: I am writing an article for a New York City publication about neighborhood gentrification and some communities’s resistance to a Starbucks opening in their area. Can you please respond regarding the protests that have occurred and why you believe people are conducting them against your corporation? And how do you answer their charges of either predatory franchise location in relation to local coffee shops or that your effect on a neighborhood is negative?
Grant: The only protests that we have seen in the New York area were related to the OCA [Organic Consumer’s Association] campaign several months ago. These protests were not related to community resistance to Starbucks. Audrey Lincoff, director, Public Affairs, Starbucks Coffee Company.
A follow-up email asking for my previous questions to be answered has not been returned.
“I’ve lost my mojo.”—Austin Powers
“Whoever started the Starbucks rumor is hysterical,” said Brooks, co-owner of The Read. “It whipped up a lot of liberal paranoia around here.”
They weren’t the first to happen around here though. “I remember a couple of years back there was a vacant lot on North 12th Street. A local artist painted on the fence ‘Coming Soon: Starbucks,’” said Dan, co-owner of The L Café. “People have always been afraid of something like that happening here.”
“Corporations moving in take away from local business and from creativity in the community,” said Ben, Williamsburg resident. “They’re systematic and homogenized. It takes the person out of the equation. I’d have to say that yes, it probably is inevitable however. Those companies are looking for places where people congregate and where it’s safe to open a business. Look at Long Island City. It’s poised for major development very soon. It’s happening everywhere, not just in our own neighborhood.”
Everywhere is an apt description. Recently, an old local supermarket in the Upper West Side went out of business and was immediately replaced with a Victoria’s Secret. Harlem’s so-called Renaissance has prompted the opening of a brand new Foot Locker and the first Papa John’s franchise in the city. Numerous examples abound. The topper, however, has to be the New York state couple that put naming rights to their son up for bid. The father revealed on “The Today Show” that the grandmother favored Microsoft.
However, this is New York City, one of the last places where you can find a plenitude of independent restaurants, bars, clubs, and delis to frequent. Would New Yorkers ever really stop patronizing their local spots?
“I think people might go to a Starbucks here and not admit to it,” said Dan from the L Café. “But I wouldn’t even view a Starbucks as competition. This neighborhood responds to authenticity. I’d like to think that we have created a place that cannot be recreated by a corporate entity.”
“Competition is competition,” said Laurence, co-owner of the Read. “Of course I’d not like to see a corporate business come into the neighborhood, but I’d still have to compete with whoever opened. I think people would go to a Starbucks around here, but is it inevitable one will come? If there’s any place that will resist it, it’s Williamsburg. Take the example of Sine right around the corner. The residents spoke out and the place had to close down.”
“I don’t think it would fit in here. It’s just not the right vibe here for Starbucks,” said a resident who declined to be identified. “People would be afraid to sit in there. Their friend would say, “Dude, I saw you in a Starbucks. What’s up? But the way the neighborhood is growing and rents are getting expensive, maybe the right kind of person for a Starbucks is moving in.”
Bradley, another Williamsburg resident, approached the subject from a different viewpoint. “There are some kids in the ‘hood that would be happy and would drink the coffee and never blink an eye. This isn’t yuppieville, it’s hipsterville, but the lines bleed. Half of the people in an uproar will act that way because it’s cool to bitch.”
He continued: “Is it inevitable? Fuck no. I have a close friend who lives in Arcata, California, a tiny town in Humboldt County. They brought in a Taco Bell. And the hippy, pot-smoking slacker residents of Arcata drove them out of town. The same thing could happen here.” The fact is another coffee house/ café/ pastry shop will open at the corner of N. 5th and Bedford shortly. As Dan at the L Café said, “When I found out it was another café and pastry shop – whether it was a Starbucks or not – I rolled my eyes. That’s just what this neighborhood needs.”
“It got weird didn’t it?” –Dr. Evil
“Sunnyside, Queens is a pretty nice place if you can deal with the 7 train. Start making plans. We won’t last forever. Certain things are inevitable –ask Ed Koch: ‘The role of the artists in New York is to make a neighborhood so desirable that they can no longer afford to live there,’” said Bradley.
Is Williamsburg headed toward future franchises and corporatization? Is it going to become a pale shadow of its former self?
I stopped on the sidewalk outside Veracruz one Friday night and talked to a group of young people having beers at the window. Comments ranged from “We don’t want a fucking Starbucks here,” to “it’s inevitable, everything gets commercialized,” to "No, it’s not inevitable. It can be stopped. It can’t happen in Williamsburg.” As I walked away, the argument continued. This issue raises a lot of other issues in people’s minds, about their neighborhoods, about commercialism, and about corporate entities and their meaning. While playing devil’s advocate, I felt a nervous quality appear under my skin when I was defending Starbucks as a business that was just doing good business. It felt like “Karma Police” should start playing at any second.
Williamsburg has gentrified at an alarming pace over the past few years. Is this bad? Not necessarily. As much as I complain, I like that the neighborhood is safe, that the local supermarket has more choices now, that I have bars to choose from and thirty restaurants to eat at, and that I don’t need to go in to Manhattan anymore. (Maybe in the future, Manhattan will become the place to go to after everyone has left.)
People are moving in here for the atmosphere, for the people, for the cheaper rents (though how much longer they will remain cheaper is anyone’s guess), for the fact of not being in Manhattan. When does the neighborhood reach critical mass, with all the elements people came searching for disappear because of the very fact that everyone followed them here?
There is no need to point fingers. The same thing has happened, and is happening, all over New York City. The West Village, the East Village, Soho, Tribeca, Harlem, Long Island City. People will always be drawn to an environment that promotes creativity and promises the feeling of “hip.” In the end, it is up to the neighborhood to maintain its character if it wants to.
Artists are being forced out of their lofts. They are leaving the area and it hurts the local culture. How can it be controlled? There are landlords here being given money they have never dreamed at for rent. How do they turn it down? People are finding apartments three times the size of apartments in the East Village at the same price. How do you say no? There are over thirty galleries now showing local artists’ work that wouldn’t otherwise have a space for people to come see it. Is it bad that they’re gaining notoriety for the area and artists?
Does it really matter if a Starbucks opens here? In the grand scheme of things, probably not.
We can learn a lesson from Austin Powers, who thought the world-controlling Dr. Evil had finally won when he had robbed him of his mojo. It turned out that Austin had what he needed inside of him all along anyway. (You defeated Dr. Evil, saved the world, and believe me, you’re going to get the girl.” –Felicity Shagwell) Just like the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion. Can we put things the way we want them? Yes. Can we prevent corporation from taking over everything? Yes. We just have to want it. Because if we, the public, do not have control anymore, what’s the point of democracy?
Right next to the North 5th property in question a wireless phone store has opened and is ready for business.
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.