By Joe Perez
There’s a recently redesigned and expanded Starbucks Coffee within walking distance from my home in Seattle. I used to go in there quite a bit, but gradually the place has become so busy and noisy that it’s impossible to find a good seat (sometimes it’s even been standing room only), so I’ve found alternatives.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Starbucks was ever a “home away from home,” but it was the spot where I first attended a Seattle Integral meet-up, and where I met many business clients for a while. Now I’ve come across an article in Forbes claiming that Starbucks may be making their coffee shops intentionally a bit uncomfortable so that they drive away people who linger too long in one spot and bump up the customer churn rate.
A Starbucks company spokesperson isn’t exactly denying the claim, so it looks like there’s some truth to it. And it ought not surprise anyone. Starbucks is a publicly held company with an obligation to increase profits. But what does it say about Starbucks customers — which is just about everyone in Seattle and hundreds of millions of people throughout the world — that it matters so much to us?
Alice Walton, writing in Forbes:
The new “let’s make it slightly uncomfortable” model has a larger effect on the psyches of the customers – those who come to work or to play – than we might think at first. This is because the coffee house plays the central role of “Third Place” in our lives – home being the first and work being the second – and Starbucks has always been vocal about its desire to be this third place for its customer. What’s interesting is that humans actually really need this place, and we’ve needed if for practically our whole existence, according to some.
About 20 years ago, Ray Oldenburg, PhD, who wrote a book called The Great Good Place, argued that there are a number of attributes that make a third place a third place: It has to be convenient, inviting, serve something, and have some good regulars (which, he says, is actually more important than having a good host). People have had third places throughout history, and they’ve ranged from taverns to coffee houses to barbershops. They’re definitely better than street corners. Third places are different from first or second ones because we go to them in our in-between time – their voluntariness is what makes them so special and unique.
For millions of people who are not regular church attendees, the coffeehouse is increasingly playing a social role similar to that which churches used to play. We go there to meet people who we know and like. We go there to read a book and listen to soft music. We go there to break bread and drink beverages that alter our state of consciousness. Nobody forces us to go, and we can walk out at any time.
With nearly 20,000 Starbucks locations throughout the world (according to Wikipedia), the coffee giant is not in danger of eclipsing organized religion anytime soon (comparing to about 271,000 physical Catholic churches alone). But I wager that in modern countries Starbucks is adding coffee shops much faster than the Roman Catholic Church is adding new churches, and the Roman Church has had a bit of a headstart.
The world is thirsty for spirituality, and for many of us our heart longs to have Third Places that transcend the boundaries of any one particular organized religion. Coffee shops are substituting for churches at a time when religions have floundered at articulating an earthy, embodied, Fullness-loving vision of spirituality that makes them better places to go to hang out.
It’s a pity that it takes the profit-driven behavior of companies like Starbucks — making seats more uncomfortable, pumping up the volume of the music so it becomes more difficult to study and hold a conversation — to remind us that a beverage retail store cannot truly substitute for a House of Worship. Is it too much to ask that one day we might all walk down the street to our favorite neighborhood spiritual center to hang out with friends and meet new people in love with Life and Love, a place where it is not only okay to Be Yourself, but an expectation and obligation?