Small business sentimentality

[30 December 2007]

By Rob Horning

Yesterday, as I walked to the other side of the neighborhood to get my hair cut, I noticed that a little independent coffee shop that had opened only a few months ago was already closed. This didn’t surprise me at all; it was more of a whimsical notion than a coherent business. They sold hip, old-timey nostalgic things like campy paperbacks and candy in 1950s era packaging, and they also sold homemade pies at exorbitant prices. It had two tables in the back and one in front, not sufficient room for anyone to loiter comfortably, but enough where you were made to feel that someone ought to be but wasn’t. And the barristas, if you’d call them that, were generally on their cell phones or in the midst of conversation among themselves instead of dispensing service. And its location, sort of on the way to the subway for that side of the neighborhood, was adequate, but not prime. Maybe, if this article by Taylor Clark from Slate is to be taken as gospel, they needed to be even closer to the Starbucks that’s on the corner a few blocks away.

Clark argues that far from putting mom-and-pop coffee shops out of business, Starbucks teaches local customers to elevate their tastes and to find it reasonable to spend a lot on coffee.

Each new Starbucks store created a local buzz, drawing new converts to the latte-drinking fold. When the lines at Starbucks grew beyond the point of reason, these converts started venturing out—and, Look! There was another coffeehouse right next-door!

The reason Starbucks doesn’t obliterate its competition the way Wal-Mart does, is that it has far fewer overhead advantages, and the ones it implements (cheap, automatic espresso machines) degrades its product. Often, a chief aspect of the service it sells—convenience—is spoiled by its own popularity. And we all know how sentimental latte liberals can be about “anti-corporate” businesses—independent retailers and the like. The presence of Starbucks right next door allows such people to express their political views with much more salience when they actively reject Starbucks for the small-time coffee shop, assuming all the time how clever they are and how much better the service will be from the local people who truly appreciate it.

I admit that such thinking drove me from my local Starbucks to the now defunct independent competitor. I had received a few lukewarm cups from Starbucks (and didn’t have the time on the way to work to go back to the store, wait in line, and ask for a new one) and I remain fed up with Starbucks’ employees inability to properly prepare an Iced Americano, so that it doesn’t turn into a piss-warm puddle of watered-down espresso. I figured the new local place would do a better job out of pride. As Clark notes, you don’t beat Starbucks on ambiance but by providing a better product. But the local shop ultimately failed in this, serving their own lukewarm brew and sometimes making me wait as the counter person carried out their private conversations leisurely rather than waiting on me. Maybe I’m sensitive (i.e. paranoid), but I hate when clerks are laughing with their friends as I approach. I hate disrupting a good time, especially when all I want is what the establishment is presumed to exist to provide. So I stopped going there and made another effort to get up earlier to have coffee at home in the morning. (Clark cites this shocking statistic: only 10 percent of coffee shops fail. That confirms that my neighborhood java entrepreneurs were unusually misguided.)

So, though little public failures always tend to depress me, I wasn’t exactly sad to see this locally owned coffee shop fold. Instead, it was a reminder that I shouldn’t make the mistake of being sentimental about mom-and-pop stores. It’s the same temptation as being sentimental about small-town life, while forgetting the stultifying conformity and the routine invasions of one’s privacy. One benefit of, say, going to Starbucks is that you preserve your anonymity, which is tantamount to remaining basically equal in the eyes of the clerks (though the tall guy with the glasses at the Starbucks on my corner remembers me and gets my small coffee ready without my having to ask—this is more than the local place would do). Mom-and-pop places are much more prone to the petty graft that comes from familiarity and small-scale aspirations—extorting tips, using variable, spontaneous pricing to take advantage of neophytes, and so on. Local places will play favorites with customers, decide who belongs and who doesn’t, and work in various subtle and unsubtle ways to exclude those deemed undesirable. Some people will get “the nice guy discount” (if they have the gumption to ask for it) and others will get stonewalled mysteriously as they wait to be helped.

Ultimately, it depends on the disposition of particular employees how one will be treated in a shop, but national chains are more likely to insist on uniform service apart from local considerations. Sentimentality leads us to believe that those considerations are to our favor, are the sorts of things that knit us into a community. We forget that they can work the other way, and remind us of our arbitrary exclusion.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/small-business-sentimentality/