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Published:October 2nd, 2009 10:23 EST
Is Starbucks Really "Destroying Sense of Community?"

Is Starbucks Really "Destroying Sense of Community?"

By Geoff Dean

 Professor Bryant Simon of Temple University in Philadelphia has put a lot of work into looking into the impact of Starbucks on society. In the run up to his book on the subject, he logged 15 hours a week in the coffee shops, visitng some 425 in 9 countries. In addition to a severe caffeine addiction, he has gained some insight into the world`s largest coffee chain.

 He claims that Starbucks has "destroyed a sense of community" by creating "isolating" spaces where people hold planned meetings and/or do solo work but avoid "spontaneous discussions and interactions". He criticizes Starbucks for their lack of "meaningful conversation and debate."

 Living in Japan as I do, it is impossible to avoid the ubiquitous Starbucks (not that I want to avoid it, particularly) which has exploded onto the scene and now rivals other American imports like Domino`s Pizza, McDonald`s, and Seven-Eleven. Trying to find a station without a Starbucks in front of it in Japan is something akin to looking Eldorado. And as McDonald`s is locally referred to as "Mac" and Kentucky Fried Chicken as "Kenta", Starbucks has gained the nickname of "Sta-buh".

 When I asked my students for their take on his views, they had sympathy but also felt some disagreement at points. First, Professor Simon claimed that Starbucks was replacing libraries and other public spaces as centers of conversation. In Japan, these places have never served that function. Similarly, while indeed, there are few spontaneous discussions in Starbucks in Japan, the students questioned whether people wanted them in the first place. Mr. Simon suggested coffee shops with round tables and newspapers as discussion starters; my students sincerely doubted that would lead strangers to talk to each other or have any other impact than to reduce Starbucks` market share. People go to a coffee shop, not for meaningful conversation, but for coffee, they seemed to say.

 While I can`t comment on US Starbucks`, I must question whether Starbucks is destroying community or just responding to the situation of an already destroyed community. In Japan, there still remain local Mom and Pop coffee shops here and there, for those who wish to enjoy time with friends and neighbors. For those in a hurry, with no time for chit chat, wanting a quick break in their busy and stressful day, and wanting to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee in a peaceful atmosphere, there is Starbucks.