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Friday, March 2, 2007

Re: Starbooks

posted by on March 2 at 10:31 AM

I went to college with Ishmael Beah, the former boy soldier of Sierra Leone, whose memoir A Long Way Gone is distributed in virtually every Starbucks. In college, I admired his soft-spoken manner and wide smile. It was a fairly standard admiration, of running in similar circles, but was never closer than a shared lunch table. I now know his public persona better than I ever knew the real Ishmael, and before his book I didn’t know anything of his past of lost family, narcotic-fueled battles, or UNICEF rehabilitation.

On February 20th, Ishmael started his Starbucks book tour at the U-Village Starbucks. The cafe could not hold the crowd, but was nonetheless ready with advertising samples of brownies and some new Cinnamon-latte-dulce-de-something, which I sipped while Ishmael answered questions about the healing power of hope or how we can stop all wars. He did not have such broad answers, but was focused on his activism of building awareness of child soldiering and the incremental steps that must be taken to stop the practice. The book and its distribution seem to be just one step in his process that goes beyond lofty discussions of world peace. As he does this tour, he continues to speak at UN conferences and has just launched the Ishmael Beah Foundation, a resource for activism to end child soldiering.

I do wonder where Starbucks fits in—I am a Starbucks cynic—though perhaps Ishmael is not. Obviously, there are tons of people who adore Starbucks, but I don’t like their smell or the noise their chairs make on the tile floor. At worst, I don’t like their corporate packaging of a co-opted homogeneous lifestyle. Are they using Ishmael? Is he using them? Maybe on the spectrum of sacrifices he has made, the cooption of his story to millions of happy Starbucks customers, to help save others, is not the worst thing. But in exposure and promotion, is there a line to cross? Is this story from Playboy the line and what does Armani have to do with any of this?

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I don't like the coffee at Starbucks as much as I like it at other businesses, so I typically don't go there if there is any other option. That's about as far as my hating on Starbucks can go. That they sell a prepackaged so-called lifestyle that people are willing to buy into only reveals how smart they are as a business (and how sheep-like we are). As with any business--large or small, corporate or "independent"--we can and should criticize Starbucks when their business practices run afoul of our values. However, let's give praise where praise is do. The company does a lot of good things, and I definitely count the marketing of this book as one of those. Successfully marketing any book is difficult. Getting most Americans to see Africans in any real way is even harder (Oscar nominated movies do not count). Sure, in stocking this book Starbucks gets to slap themselves on the back for getting a lot of good p.r. at relatively no cost, but I'm willing to let them be a little more smug than usual if it means that everyone who goes to Starbucks has to look at Beah's book. Everyone who goes to Starbucks is a hell of a lot more people than will ever even enter a bookstore, let alone stop and look at a book about an African's story. As a former bookseller and an African-American that depresses the hell out of me, but big props to Beah for coming out on the right end of that of that sad equation. As a result, a lot of people are thinking and talking about child soldiers this week. When was the last time any of us did that?

Posted by tam | March 2, 2007 12:13 PM

Playboy is supposed to have serious articles, from what 'they' say. It can't be any worse than some of the women's magazines I used to read. I wouldn't be interviewed for it as a woman, and I would avoid lame questions, as in this example:
Playboy: what would you like to be reincarnated as?
Governor (of MN) Ventura: a DD bra.

But if it gets people to read your story, and Beah's probably a straight guy who likes Playboy mag, if only for the articles, maybe it's not so bad.

Just as Starbucks isn't that bad as a company. I did try a short stint working there, and it was the worst job I ever had; I'd rather clean rich people's houses- but that doesn't say much about their ethics or commitment to reading. Eh, it's better than their movie thing with Akeelah. Coffee and reading make sense.

Posted by Tiz | March 2, 2007 12:15 PM

"Coffee and reading make sense."

Exactly right, Tiz.

This story is illustrating the points made in Mr. Schultz' memo from a couple weeks ago. On one hand, you have the "vision" of Starbucks as a promoter of coffee and coffeehouse lifestyle, which certainly includes reading and discussion of weighty issues. On the other hand, you have the streamlined behemoth mindset that has crept into Starbucks' coprporate culture, where you expand rapidly and standardize the experience for efficiency. The book promotion highlights that struggle perfectly. Unpaid Intern appreciates the need for Isaiah's story to be told, but as a critical thinker is put off by the bland, "safe" environment a Starbucks store creates.

Posted by laterite | March 2, 2007 1:27 PM

Gah....Ishmael. 1,000 apologies, Mr. Beah.

Posted by laterite | March 2, 2007 1:28 PM

I attended the Beah 'performance' at Starbucks and was blown away. I thought the Starbucks people made a great effort to keep the crowd fed, and they were obviously surprised at the large crowd that showed up -- as was the guest of honor. I'd never seen anything like it - the crowd gathered along the exterior walls of the building and listened thru the open windows on a winter night, with microphones being extended thru the windows to reach the folks outside and include them in the question-and-answer portion of the presentaton. I came away thinking that someone at Starbucks, in a position of being able, recognized the unique and guileless message of this book and man; and made it available to us. The outcome was a win-win. Mr. Beah gets to promote his book, and even more his message, in a surprisingly warm environment for a corporation. Kudos to Starbucks for hosting the tour so we could see him first hand, and for their very large cash donation to UNICEF. It was a totally "Seattle" experience for me and proved that even corporations can show some heart if they hire the right people. I needed to experience that...

Posted by Summer | March 8, 2007 10:24 AM

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