SCHULTZ, HOWARD WITH JOANNE GORDON. Onward. New York: Rodale, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-60529-288-5. Pp. 350. $25.99.
There's a fad rippling through the American publishing industry. Remember when people used to walk around saying, "There is no way I'm reading an entire book about cod"? Or, "Is it really necessary to write the history of plastic bottles?" But nowadays, people are really into reading lengthy tomes encompassing the history, social and anthropological significances, and mythologies surrounding ordinary things. Mark Kurlansky may be the founding father, or at least the ringleader, of this fad. His books Cod and Salt are both hugely acclaimed. I just hope no one steals my idea to write the history of a grain of sand!
In a similar vein, I believe, is the corporate memoir, for which the reader chooses to spend more than twenty dollars and a dozen hours to read a long, and often repetitive, advertisement. Lucky for me, I went to college where a Starbucks was not within walking distance, and therefore I was like totally out of the loop during the coffee company's corporate hardships. As a consequence, much of Onwards was news to me. Of course it seems natural that a pricey coffee shop chain would suffer during the recession, but I didn't know, for example, that 600 stores were closed across the United States, or that they introduced a new brew called Pike's Place. I tried this magical drink for the first time on Friday. It was pretty good. It didn't have that trade-mark burnt taste, which Schultz attributes to the high quality of the bean, rather than to over-zealous roasting plants. I had my tall Pike's Place with a slice of berry coffee cake and a fruit cup. The cost was somewhere between seven and eight dollars. The fruit cup alone was $3.45, although that may have been due to the two slices of mango. How much does a mango cost anyway? But as I was saying, for less than a full meal, I paid for the full meal I could have gotten at the sandwich shop next door. Schultz may deny accusations of selling $4 lattes, but he's cutting it pretty damn close. The cost may also have been due to the faux-handwritten note on the paper bag in which the barista had put my cake. It was apologetic but also kind of mightier-than-thou. Hey Starbucks, what if I want my cake to be filled with artificial flavoring and preservatives? Now excuse me while I finish this Twinkie that I've sandwiched between two Snoballs.
Much of Schultz's work bemoans Starbucks's recent straying away from its rich heritage (shouldn't something be older than 40 to have heritage?) and his return as CEO (which, in Starbucks-speak, is ceo), during which he pulled his company from the brink with innovative coffee tastings and mass firings. I shouldn't actually make fun. I just found it strange to read about the day when 1,000 employees were fired in juxtaposition to the hiring of people from outside the company. And the chapter on the convention held in New Orleans in 2008 was genuinely moving. One of the organizers stayed in New Orleans a few days after the event and learned from a street vendor he was talking to that Starbucks had paid for this man's monthly mortgage. 10,000 employees had gathered in the city for the conference, during which each person was involved with five hours of community service. The amount they must have accomplished in a few days is mind-boggling. Of course, adding Bono to the mix kind of took the punch out of the whole thing, if you ask me.
I won't become a Starbucks regular, much as Schultz will take this personally. There's a cafe in the building attached to the one I work in. But I will say this: back when I worked in a bookstore in Brooklyn, I used to drink Starbucks coffee almost everyday. There was one right next door. Also, everyone who works at Starbucks is really nice. According to Schultz, one barista gave a kidney to a favorite customer. Now that's service.