Historian concludes Starbucks missing sense of community

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- If Bryant Simon owned a coffee shop, it would not have conversation-killing Wi-Fi. It probably wouldn't offer to-go cups. But it would have a big, round table strewn with newspapers to stimulate discussion.

That sense of community is what's missing from Starbucks, a conclusion Simon reached after visiting about 425 of its coffee shops in nine countries. And yet millions of people patronize the outlets each day.

Simon, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has spent the past few years figuring out why. His new book, "Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks," is meant "to be part of a public debate about what our purchases mean ... (and) how consumption shapes our lives even when we don't intend it to," Simon said.

Seattle-based Starbucks had nearly $10.4 billion in revenue in 2008. Simon, however, argues the true cost of macchiatos and frappuccinos is much greater -- that Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans' impoverished civic life.

Simon writes that while people once were able to find meaningful conversation and debate at libraries, recreation centers and parks, those public spaces have become less available -- and less desirable -- since municipal resources are focused elsewhere.

Starbucks has filled that void, according to Simon. Or has it? After spending up to 15 hours a week in various Starbucks over the past few years, Simon said he witnessed very few spontaneous discussions or interactions. The couches, plush chairs and tables all seemed to be used for planned meetings or solo work on laptops.

"Rarely ... do these different people doing different things actually talk and exchange ideas, but talk and ideas are crucial to the making of community," he writes.

Simon's observations are already being debated in college classrooms. David Grazian, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is using the book in a class on media and popular culture....

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