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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Doing Starbucks Differently

It's very easy to make the argument that British society and culture are stultifying and homogenising; talk a walk through your town or city centre and chances are, you will be seeing the same shopfronts as would anybody else walking in their town centres. In terms of cafes, a cursory glance through Doncaster town centre yields Starbucks, Costa and Nero, as does Cambridge. The staff outfits are the same. The tables and chairs are the same. The background music is the same. The drinks are the same.

But the Starbucks experience is different. Starbucks Doncaster and Starbucks Cambridge, despite their aesthetic similarities, each reflect back the characteristics of the micro-cultures and norms of the locations in which they are situated. This irrevocably alters the normative behaviours of Starbucks and, as I found today, subtle differences in expectation alter the ways in which people practice Starbucks.

For me, Starbucks is first and foremost an overpriced, noisy thinking space. The silence of libraries sets off my internal monologues, or even worse my internal singing of Rihanna's 'Unfaithful'. So off I toddle to Starbucks with a backpack full of laptop, books, articles, notepads and my portable foldable lectern (yes, yes, I know).

In the Cambridge Starbucks on Market Square, you can go in for your morning coffee at 8am, safe in the knowledge that it will be packed out with students. People's shoes come off as they settle themselves, mocha in hand, for a cross-legged power-read of Austen, or Bourdieu or whoever. If the music stopped, all you would hear is the scribbling of pen and paper and the whirring of laptops - the soundtrack to a lecture hall. Buying your 8am coffee and croissant justifies your occupation of a table for the rest of the morning. Friends work together in silence, each doing their own work.

I naively entered Doncaster Starbucks today with similar expectations. I skulked around the store in the quest to find plugsockets and was alarmed to find there were only 3. I got a Chai Latte and perched myself at a table, plugged in my laptop, whipped out my two notebooks and placed them on a chair. I would have benefitted from the lectern, but I knew it would cause too much of a fuss. I became aware, as I worked away, that I was receiving quite hostile glares from other customers, as if to ask why I thought I could monopolise a table with my books. People stick around in Starbucks far less in Donk than in Cam; they drink it down and leave.

On Maslow's hierarchy, Doncaster Starbucks satisfies the physiological need, whereas in Cambridge Starbucks it is all about self-actualisation.

Ultimately, this reflects the way in which citizens of each town utilise and interact with their built environment. For the Cambridge students, whose disposable income is boosted either by parents or by bursaries, the town centre isn't just a place full of shops but is the place where they live, learn, sleep, socialise and rest. Thus, in Starbucks as one of the few places,there are a multiplicity of functions that can be served.

But for Doncaster, the town centre represents solely a place of commerce. Shopping is not conducive to leisure, certainly not to leisurely academia. The way in which Starbucks is used is as a break between shops.

This explains why people looked at me today as though I was a table-hogging twat.

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