Succumbing to globalism, one cup at a time

  Not long ago and with little fanfare, Montana lost one of its distinctions. It ceased to be one of the last few states without a Starbucks Coffee Shop. Last year, only six states didn't have a stand-alone store. The offending shop arrived in August in Helena on Prospect Avenue.

The greenish copper rotunda of the Capitol building was visible above the trees and housetops as I pulled away from the Starbucks drive-through window.

Right. I patronized the store. In the morning I went in for drinks and in the early afternoon I whipped around to the window for a cup to go.

The truth is that I both despise and desire Starbucks. Back in Boulder, Colo., we went so often to the chain for drinks that the green logo with the wild-haired woman was one of the first signs that my son recognized. He would say, "Starbucks logo!" the way other kids can pinpoint a McDonald's with a tiny glimpse of the yellow arches.

My son was two and a new talker, and I explained that the logo represents American cultural and corporate imperialism. I repeated the phrase to him in the hopes that it would echo out of his mouth someday in mixed company. (Instead, he echoed another phrase that I wish he'd forget: "Don't be such a chump.")

Starbucks has begun its assault on Montana with its typical alacrity and aggression. By Christmas, the painfully helpful barista explained, the one Helena shop would be reinforced by another. Rumors abound of an expansion to Billings. What's to stop the front from moving onto Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula?

Part of me can't wait. Growing up in the ‘80s in Billings was like living in a wasteland. The city had minimal legal entertainment for teens. I daydreamed about coffee shops and other hangouts. A trip to Missoula, the hip university town, was a chance to live a fantasy. Weird people walked the streets wearing cool T-shirts and carrying paper cups of coffee. I would have given a kingdom for a coffee shop that stayed open until 9.

And even today, most towns in Montana don't have a place to stop for a quick cup of strong coffee when you're driving through at 7 on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon. I love Starbucks coffee. I think coffee should always make you feel like you can eat nails.

Some corporate chains can bring a net gain to a community. You can crucify me for saying so, but Barnes & Noble Booksellers was a tremendous addition to Billings. The city had no large bookstores. It probably increased by a factor of 10 the number of titles on sale there. And Starbucks offers health insurance to its employees. The coffee shops where I worked as a young adult didn't.

On the other hand, Montana has long been wonderfully free of the rest of the world. Old fast-food restaurants from the 1950s survive here. They simply never heard that the world had passed them by. Only a fraction of the presidential candidates in the past half-century campaigned here.

So it was a shock to see the logo of the wild-haired woman on the green circular sign in Helena. Another piece of the outside world has come.

As I drove away, splashing the familiar hot coffee on my hand, I began to fret. The problem with chains is they often kill the elements that give a region its distinctive flavor. I have a friend who won't go to a restaurant if it's not a chain. He wants a familiar menu with familiar items. It's people like him who make me worry that a Starbucks in Missoula might endanger my favorite coffee shops. When my son, now 5, and I drive the 45 miles to town, we like to get cookies and drinks at Bernice's Bakery by the Clarks Fork River.

The music in Bernice's isn't canned, and the tables and chairs don’t match. The brick walls hold photos and paintings by local artists. You hear an eclectic mix of music, and the coffee is thick and strong. I'll be heart-broken if a Starbucks comes to Missoula and Bernice's closes.

But our borders have been crossed. The wild-haired lady in green nears. I'm heartened by a news story I read in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago that contradicted the notion that Starbucks was the death of local coffee shops. Instead, the story said, local coffee shops often profited, in part because of a backlash against the corporate intruder. I'll try to remember that my dollars are like votes. I try to spend judiciously.

Bring it on, Starbucks. I'm ready for your convenient locations near me.

Robert Struckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes near Missoula, Montana.

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