Like a bright bat-signal cast across the twitterverse into the clouds of my highly distractible and overcaffeinated brain, I am called to the blog-cave today by a piece of purported journalism – the cover story of this week’s NY Press slamming the good people of Stumptown Coffee. Many wise and appropriate things have been said in the comments section of the online article already, but I’ll cast my 2 cents into the fountain of this mini-rant…
Much like Twilight fans, coffeegeeks are notoriously easy to troll, and I guess I’m not immune. Take an ill-informed premise, add in some vague anti-hip faux-populism, air-headed economic theorizing, and a weird need to establish grudges against people you’ve not met… well, you’ve got yourself the makings of a runny turd of not-quite-journalism suitable for stirring up a fun pile of emails to your editor (who clearly ought to have better things to do, like fact-checking a cover story, but I digress).
In my last post I asked why coffeebars are so often singled out for special pseudo-scrutiny about their motivations, margins, and business practices. I’ll again resist a full accounting of the answer to that difficult question but one big element worth touching on is the discomfort many of our fellow citizens have with human authenticity in their retail transactions.
We are comfortable with the customer-is-always-right servile status quo of corporate retail. We are comfortable when the person at the cash register is on a lower rung of the unspoken but ubiquitous class divides which define our public behavior. We are often much less comfortable when the person on the other side of a transaction is a real person, a peer, or (heaven forbid) someone younger or more attractive or of otherwise enviable lifestyle. In America we are instructed that by nestling safely into our well-rehearsed role as “consumers” we can expect others to assume their complimentary facilitating and enabling roles, shielding us from having to engage with strangers as anything more than non-player-characters in the game of capitalism.
I would argue this customer / service-provider divide or lack thereof is the nut of what distinguishes good â€œindyâ€ shops or owner-operated retail businesses from chains and corporate monoliths. It is the element that most reflects on that elusive and hard to approach notion of authenticity, which many folks, infantilized by consumer culture, arenâ€™t always comfortable navigating.
I wont excuse bad service but I also donâ€™t have much truck with the notion that our mere willingness to throw money around by itself entitles us to special treatment.
All of which is to say that the guy who wrote this article clearly has an issue with some people who work at Stumptown, or cool people generally, or people he perceives as trying to be cool, or people who are considered cool by other people who he has determined are themselves uncool. Insert obligatory mentions of bicycles, mustaches, and skinny jeans (I kid you not, read the article!). Maybe he tried unsuccessfully to date a Stumptown barista (editors note: never date baristas).
If I were a better wannabe culture critic myself I might go on further about the origins of consumer privilege, strategies for subverting retail expectations, or the ideal of service in a theoretical gift economy, but I put down the bong years ago and skipped the academic disciplines of college completely so yâ€™all are on your own there.
And coming back briefly to the original article (which is amply refuted in the better comments), I would like to say that Duane and the crew at Stumptown march on the side of angels in this coffee game and deserve commendations for the inspiring work they do. The landscape of coffee company marketing and hype is littered with buzzwords and bluster and confusion still reigns in the press about what truly separates the greats from the merely goods or the totally phonies (a state of affairs us coffee folk still struggle to address effectively). An emerging pantheon of names (familiar enough to readers of this blog to not merit repeating) is finally getting well earned praise in certain circles. Foodies, good journalists and some great restauranteurs are starting to figure out coffee (even as most prominent Food Critics continue to ignore it or get it wrong). Things are looking up.
Now that the economy has gone to shit and ex-bankers are lining up to become bread bakers and baristas, big box stores are shuttering and being reborn as churches and community centers and farmers markets are flourishing, maybe we are ready as a culture to dispense with some of our old mass-market hang-ups. Have you hugged your hipster barista today?