Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Meeting for Coffee, Drinking Beer

A small group of people met last night at Thunderbird Coffee to discuss coffee shop ideas -- and the first thing we noticed was that 3 of the 4 drinks ordered were beer. Can you blame us? They serve Fireman's #4. We chuckled about that.

But the beer also gave shape to the first point of the discussion that followed, which was that whatever the place is, it should also be able to sell beer. Holly, a new mom, recommended that it be a kid-friendly place, given that the baby potluck mafia in WP has swelled to several hundred. Emile and Stacy explained why roasting your own coffee (rather than purchasing it wholesale) is more cost-effective in the long run; Emile is a coffee roaster who currently manages a coffee shop in Westlake, so he had the most experience of all. (He also wants to get back into the roasting game.) Kristin says she noticed two signs in a window at Briarcliff & Westminster by the CVS, one promising fresh donuts, the other new tires. (But no coffee.)

We split up after assigning some small tasks and scheduled another meeting for the same time and day in two weeks.

It doesn't seem that anyone is wedded to cooperative principles philosophically; it's more a practical way to organize a start-up. The whole thing has an outsider business (as in "outsider art") feel to it, which I love as much for its simple faith in entrepreneurship as the absence of any qualms about commerce. Some old professor wrote to the WPNA listserv trying to tar me as anti-business because I was making an argument for local business/brands over national brands; it's impossible to shop anywhere that's not tainted, he wrote. Needless to say, I never said anything about taint and corruption.

I'd like to say that I'm an amateur connoiseur of business models. To prefer the local business over the national corporation is to prefer a certain kind of mechanism, not for any ideological reasons, but for ethical and even aesthetic ones. There's a subtle way in which arguments about capitalism and collective action by people of a certain generation froze during the Cold War, by people whose brains were left behind by glasnost, perestroika, and Clinton's Third Way. Where you were during the dotcom boom plays a part, I think. Before the World Wide Web hit, the greatest minds of my generation were stuck in office jobs, temping, slacking off, playing rock and roll. Without the Web, we, or they, would have stayed crushed under a Baby Boomer hegemony. The Web didn't create entrepreneurship. But it did empower the DIYism of the age.

That has given us -- me -- whatever -- a taste for the business as a thing of beauty, a mechanism or a contraption that shows the influence of the hands that produced it. So the point isn't only that you walk in, put down your money, and somebody hands you a cup of coffee. What also has to be compelling is the story of where that coffee comes from, where you walk in to, and how it came to be.

It's no surprise that everyone at the coffee meeting was under 40.

UPDATE: Let me clarify the point about taint and corruption. I am willing to accept that sizable human and environmental costs are exacted for modern American lifestyles, but that's no reason to throw all commercial activity into the same bin, to denigrate it all. The old professor was saying, it's all tainted, so why differentiate one business from another? Who cares if the coffee is Starbucks or not? I think that's foolish and naive.

1 comment:

Christopher White, Ph.D. said...

Sorry I wasn't able to make it. I was in the beautiful city of Lubbock visiting my father. Don't be jealous. Since I have become outspoken on this topic, I would love to attend any future meetings and will accept any assignments left unfilled. Thanks for putting this together. Chris White