Starbucks and the Long Tradition of Coffee Shops

In the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, Starbucks provided the backdrop to an opening scene as a smartly-attired Meg Ryan purchases her morning “beverage” on the way to work. A background narration by co-star Tom Hanks puts the unfolding act in humorous perspective as he comments on the difficulty of choosing between Starbucks’ numerous offerings so early in the morning, especially for people who have trouble making decisions of any kind at any time of the day. That opening scene provided one of those “comfortable” movie moments in the form of every-day incidents to which the entire audience can relate. Starbucks had certainly “arrived” by that time not only as a solid business venture, but as an iconic symbol as well.

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Starbucks has been an amazing success story from its fledgling 1971 emergence as a small, single-store purveyor of coffee in Seattle. Many of us can remember what existed before the Starbucks tidal wave splashed over our neighborhoods and our consciousness; the early nineteen-seventies saw the emergence of small, independent neighborhood gourmet coffee roasters/suppliers which tapped into the morning appetites of local America. Starbucks turned that boutique trend into big-business, indeed. My wife and I are frequent customers, but we also patronize Peet’s coffee houses and a favorite local downtown shop called The Bean Scene.

Coffee Shops Are Nothing New!
The “Refuge” Tradition Is Centuries-Old

In Europe and other parts of the world, the coffee shop has long been a place to relax, to converse, to work, and to see and be seen. America is a recent convert. In Scotland, an unknown and unnoticed J.K. Rowling reportedly spent many hours toiling on the first manuscript of Harry Potter in small cafes and coffee houses. As I understand it, she was close to being homeless in those days, so the cafes and coffee shops were literally a refuge for her and her young child. You occasionally see Starbucks patrons today who betray a similar plight enjoying a hot cup of coffee as they retreat for a while from the harsh reality of the world outside.

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Great Things Emanate from Coffee Shops
Besides Caramel Macchiattos

The Harry Potter tidal wave, which gathered its considerable force over cafe food and cups of coffee/tea as Ms. Rowling toiled, must, despite its huge literary impact, play second fiddle to an even more compelling publishing event, one which saw its gestation in discussions over coffee in the establishments of late seventeenth-century London.

The “Conception” of the Greatest Scientific Book Ever
Written Occurred in London’s Coffee Houses

The greatest and most influential scientific book ever written, authored by the greatest scientist in history, was born of coffee shop discussions in the year 1684. That book was Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – also known simply as the Principia – published in 1687.

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The author was not present at these discussions over coffee, being far too reclusive by nature to enjoy the camaraderie and atmosphere of such gathering places. The trio of scientific men instrumental in the birth of Newton’s masterpiece included the famous English architect Sir Christopher Wren, the astronomer Edmond Halley (of  comet fame!), and one Robert Hooke, a curious man with a curious mind – one of the leading luminaries in the Royal Society of London, the pre-eminent scientific society at that time.

These three frequented the numerous coffee shops of London to discuss exciting scientific questions of the day. One of these inquiries had to do with the shape of planetary orbits around the sun. Hooke claimed he had the answer, but he did not. Halley took the question to a very young, little-known mathematics professor at Cambridge University, one Isaac Newton. Newton furnished not only the correct answer, but the pertinent fundamental and revolutionary mathematical analysis as well. When Halley laid eyes on Newton’s hand-written manuscript, he knew that the physics of motion, indeed all of science and mathematics, was at the threshold of a new era. The rest is history, and our world was never the same.

Albert Einstein spent countless hours in Swiss cafes and coffee houses discussing physics with his friends and fellow students, often at the expense of his classes in mathematics which were happening at the same time! He borrowed class notes from his friend and fellow student Marcel Grossman in order to keep up with the classes; several years later, poetic justice intervened, requiring Einstein to call upon Grossman for help with the complicated mathematics involved in formulating the general theory of relativity!

Ernest Hemmingway is a notable author who found inspiration in the cafes and coffee shops of Paris. Much of his work was done against the backgrounds of those places.

The Starbucks Philosophy per CEO Howard Schultz:
Echoes of the great Coffee House Tradition

I have heard Schultz explain his operating philosophy for Starbucks. Along with the obvious charter to be successful and profitable and an expanded offering of espresso beverages which are so popular in Europe, he visualized Starbucks as a refuge for the average person, a place to go to get away from the house and the ever-present problems of day-to-day living. Some customers bring books to read; some create new books on art, science, or literature in the congenial atmosphere. Of course, a Starbucks or any other good coffee purveyor provides a venue for socializing – for meeting old friends, and making new ones.

I would say that Schultz had a good concept in mind, given the company’s huge success. Although Starbucks is often a stop-and-go take-out destination on the way to work, one sees many customers enjoying the morning paper or toiling away on their computers. Little has changed, and who knows what other great ideas and projects may be present in embryonic form on those computers and in those animated discussions over coffee!

2 thoughts on “Starbucks and the Long Tradition of Coffee Shops

  1. I owe such a debt to coffee shops … so much of my writing has been done there! (not to mention grading papers, reading, and socializing). For me, they are very much a refuge.

    It’s great to think about the long venerable tradition of cafes as places for inspiration and intellectual fellowship. Makes me feel like part of something timeless. 🙂

    • You are indeed a part of the tradition, and your three books are proof of the good work you do while enjoying your beverages! You are the perfect contemporary example of my closing comment in the post.

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