When Vincent’s Ear closed late last year, I wasn’t one of the people making a lot of noise about it. I’d been there maybe three times in the past five years, at most. Not that I found the place offensive or anything — I just never ended up going there much. In fact, I barely gave the coffeehouse’s closing a second thought until I was forced by a chain of events beyond my control to go to Starbucks.
Without knowing why, exactly, I felt guilty just for entering the store, as if I were violating some secret, holy law. As soon as I was inside, I wanted nothing more than to get my coffee and get out. I bristled when the cashier corrected me with a broad smile, informing me that they don’t say ‘cafe au lait’ at Starbucks: They use the Italian word. (I don’t remember what it is; I guess I’ve succeeded in blanking it out.)
I got my au lait, and I got my banana-nut muffin, and I stormed out without leaving a tip. I felt used somehow, degraded by my experience. But why? The coffee was good; the banana-nut muffin was to die for. And the service had been prompt and courteous, if mildly annoying. So what was I steamed up about?
I don’t hate Starbucks because it’s a corporate chain. I mean, sure, I hate corporate chains; I hate the homogenization of American culture that they represent. And I really hate the fact that a Wal-Mart Supercenter just opened in Asheville. But it won’t keep me up at night; I don’t hate Wal-Mart enough to chuck a brick through its window. Starbucks, however, is a whole other story.
Now before you go calling 911, I didn’t do it — I didn’t throw that brick, nor do I endorse vandalism in any form. But I understand why it was thrown. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this: For some folks, Starbucks-hating is becoming an obsession.
You know that scene in the movie Fight Club where the guys roll a giant wrecking ball into a corporate coffee shop? That’s what I’m talking about. There’s even a Web site called ihatestarbucks.com, where the company’s leaders are branded Neanderthals and much, much worse.
I don’t hate Starbucks because their coffee is bad. It’s actually quite good, and served with a pleasant attitude. On the other hand, my all-time favorite coffee shop was this little dump in Lexington, Ky., where the coffee was burnt and the service was rude and slow. The atmosphere, though — that intangible, essential element — was perfect. But the place closed down many years ago, largely because it was frequented by my peers and I, who would order a bottomless cup of the coffee of the day and sit nursing it for hours.
I’m not alone in my preference for smoky, ramshackle rooms: A lot of us would rather be served an inferior product than patronize Starbucks. We’d rather have the paint peeling off the walls than sit in a prefabricated box with ergonomic chairs and gourmet panini.
That’s not to say that any of our local coffeehouses have bad coffee or bad service. In fact, I think it would be fair to call Asheville the coffee capital of the Southeast. We’ve got a veritable cornucopia of great coffee places. I particularly enjoy the cafe au laits at Asheville Coffee Roasters on Patton Avenue downtown; Greg and Andy really know how to foam an au lait. And if I want to venture up the street, I can get organic French roast at Viva Europa and talk University of Kentucky basketball with Tim.
That’s why I hate Starbucks: because I know the names of the folks who make my coffee in the local shops. But even more than that, I hate Starbucks because when the whole coffee-house trend was first getting going, it wasn’t just about getting a hot drink that would give you a bit of a buzz. There was an entire culture built around it — a culture of nonconformity, rebellion, creativity and chain-smoking cigarettes.
Every coffee place was different. They had open-mic nights where you could watch your friends embarrass themselves. Some were set up in old houses, some in strip malls. Some had work by local artists up on the walls. Some of it was bad art, some of it was good, but it could have been painted by someone sitting next to you. Sure, the corporate places have local art up, too, but I just don’t believe they really mean it. I mean, come on, it’s a corporate chain — they care about the bottom line, not local artists who can barely afford to buy shoes.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how Starbucks doesn’t use Fair Trade coffee, how they use predatory business practices that put small coffeehouses out of business. That’s all well and good (or maybe not). But the real reason we hate corporate coffee so much is that they stole a phenomenon that our generation had created and turned it into the very things we were rebelling against. Like McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Wal-Mart and all other corporate chains, Starbucks is a major contributing factor in the growing blandness of America. It’s all about efficiency and profit, and aesthetics and culture matter only insofar as they boost business.
In the course of Starbucks’ climb toward world domination, a portion of the coffee-house culture was destroyed. It has held on in Asheville, because it fits with our local identity. But in other less-cool cities — the ones that needed the coffee places the most — something real was lost, replaced by something plastic and manufactured.
The other day, it was raining outside and I had nothing to do. I felt like reading a book, but I knew I’d fall asleep if I tried doing it at home. So I got in my car and headed downtown. I kept going round and round in my head, trying to come up with a nice place to chill for a few hours, somewhere smoky, dark and quiet. And then it hit me: I wanted to go to Vincent’s Ear.
[Freelance writer Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]