I posted on my Matters of Conscience blog a piece about writing in the aftermath of the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24th. I won’t inflict the content on you here, since you don’t come to Napper’s to encounter controversial subjects. But if you want to read it, I’m pasting in below a link to “The Act of Writing: From My Hut After Uvalde.
(Note: I wrote this commentary shortly after the Starbucks at Fifth and State in Erie, Pennsylvania, closed. It was supposed to have appeared in a local publication, but must have fallen between the cracks. These months later, then, I share it here on A Napper’s Companion.)
I’m awfully sad these days.
From 2001 through 2019, I wrote mostly in coffee shops. Erie, Pennsylvania, has seen its share of them come, go and hang on. Moonsense on Peach and Aromas on West Eighth were great. I piled up words at both. Brick House on West 26th is still brewing, but it’s way across town. Ember and Forge and Pressed are relative newcomers that I’ve sampled and may well wear out in their turn. The Tipsy Bean at 25th and Peach is my current perch. Of all the haunts, however, Starbucks has provided most of my gallons, from decaf Americanos to unsweetened iced teas. The one at Fifth and State was among my favorites.
Alas, the Coronavirus punched everybody’s routine in the throat. Shut out of beloved establishments, I ordered a prefab shed and spent the summer and fall of 2020 making it my writing hut. At this moment I’m tapping away as the bird feeders sway and snowflakes dance on their way to the backyard. The temperature is falling. Once my white noise was eclectic music, chatter and espresso machine hiss, but now it’s wind that sounds human: Ah, oh.
Still a robust coffee house patron, I look out from my 8’ x 12’ sanctum between sentences and wonder if Starbucks and Tipsy Bean know what they mean to their customers. My curiosity doesn’t come out of nowhere.
When I pulled up to Fifth and State yesterday, it was deserted. The windows were bare, no hours posted. The meaning was unmistakable, and it felt like a death.
I went right to the Bean. Barista Liv had already heard. Later I caught a statement from corporate on GoErie.com: “As part of Starbucks standard course of business, we continually evaluate our business to ensure a healthy store portfolio. After careful consideration, we determined it is best to close the (502 State St. store). Our last day at this location was Dec. 27.”
Now, I’ll try to be fair. When a mom and pop cries uncle, customers generally know about the decision. In fact, closure is often the end of a lengthy struggle. An owner might need years to bounce back personally from losses. What’s more, the community accompanies beloved proprietors to the last and appreciates the opportunity to say, “Thank you,” and “Godspeed.”
But Starbucks is no mom and pop. Forbes.com notes that the java colossus saw revenues of $23.5 billion in 2020. Still, the chain Howard Schultz made mighty is not in business to bleed money. Fifth and State is strangled to the north by a long-term construction project and lacks a drive through. And finding employees during the pandemic has been onerous, though I can’t help but imagine that peeling off a few billion of those profits for higher wages might have gone some way toward encouraging more applicants.
Back to fairness, though. Shutterings happen. BusinessInsider.com reports that Schultz returned to the Starbucks helm in 2008 after an eight-year absence and reversed a downward trend in profits by taking assertive steps, “including temporarily closing all US stores to re-train employees on how to make an espresso” and permanently shutting down “600 . . . underperforming stores, 70% of which had been open for three years or less.”
So Fifth and State may have been doomed. That I can tolerate. Unless I missed a memo, however, the departure was shabby, reminiscent of football’s Baltimore Colts’ escape to Indianapolis at twilight in 1984 as fans slept. No announcements, no goodbye. Team owner Bob Irsay might have been pilloried by the press had he dawdled, but so what? All farewells deserve tending. Difficult ones require sacrifice.
Frankly, an outfit like Starbucks that is impressively in the black can afford—and would probably benefit from—an exit more sensitive than issuing beige blather about ensuring “a healthy store portfolio.” This is particularly true for a corporation that trains its baristas to be of tirelessly good spirits and nurtures a sense of community and loyalty to its brand. To Starbucks’ credit, the strategy works well.
The trouble is, severing relationships skillfully and meticulously built in such an offhand fashion makes devotees feel betrayed. Hearing our names called out as we cross the threshold; being asked if we want our usual; seeing our name on a wipe-screen with said usual noted; engaging in a moment’s banter and sharing a laugh: Look, we’ve known all along that this modus operandi was calculated, integral to the corporate formula.
But I’m talking about the soul of Starbucks, and in this respect Fifth and State was distinctive. The intersection is about as urban as Erie gets; therefore, many of the customers greeted with comfort and cheer stood in special need of both.
No location ought to be primarily a place to get warm in winter and cool in summer, but Fifth and State filled that need with remarkable grace. Many hours I sat elbow-to-elbow with folks whose dress was shabby. They nursed their purchased beverage, its cost having covered more than a product. Like all the regulars, they, too, were called by name. The table they occupied was come by fair and square. No kidding, I was proud to be there.
Maybe I’m projecting, but the baristas seemed to embrace an unspoken mission: Everybody deserves a friendly welcome, a comfortable place to sit for a while and top-notch coffee in a cup that takes the winter chill from hands circled around it.
I’m going to miss employees and clientele alike. Admittedly, nobody is going to freeze to death or suffer heat stroke because, say, an insurance agency moves into Starbucks’ old storefront. And the GoErie.com report notes that baristas “were given the option to transfer to nearby locations.” That’s considerate.
My long-standing habit is to tell anybody and everybody when they do a good job, and those behind the counter at coffee shops have been frequent recipients of praise. Now I’m compelled to send a little blame to Seattle: “It wasn’t sporting of you to close Erie’s Fifth and State and let us know retroactively. That’s poor form, and a corporation with your marketing wizardry is capable of much better. On the off chance that you read this, please reconsider your approach to leave-taking in the future. In this sad season for Americans, your patrons in one Pennsylvania town begin a new year sadder still.”