Civilization's caffeinated contents

Posted: Sep 28, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Contemplating the reconstruction of areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina - not to mention ways to save civilization - I find a single word unavoidable: Starbucks.

Love or hate the globe-gobbling coffee giant, if you build one, they will come.

No matter where you shop or stop these days, there seems to be a Starbucks nearby - at Target stores, in gas stations, in airports. They're, of course, ubiquitous in Barnes & Noble bookstores. There's even a Starbucks now at the Great Wall of China.

In this nation's capital, if you tell someone to meet you at Starbucks at certain intersections, you have a choice. Which corner? Which Starbucks? They're everywhere.

No matter how many materialize, seemingly overnight, there's almost always a line and nary a table for those who want to prop up laptops - including, famously, President George W. Bush's former speechwriter and now policy adviser, Michael Gerson, who wrote Bush's speeches at a Starbucks near the White House.

The Barnes & Noble in Georgetown sometimes can resemble a Metro station during rush hour. Few bars or restaurants have more traffic on a weekend night. On a recent Saturday evening, I noted families seated together reading and sipping drinks, while couples hovered over magazines or laptops. B&N isn't just a place to buy books anymore; it's a date destination.

Which brings me to my point. If you want people to gather, whether in a retail shop, a grocery store, a devastated coast or a blighted urban area - even a public library where few go to read anymore - build a Starbucks, or something like it. B&N, thanks in no small part to the seductive smell of coffee, has become the new public library.

Put it this way: When was the last time you couldn't find a seat at your local branch? When was the last time you went to the library on a Saturday night? For fun. Just to browse. Please, if you're that guy, don't write. It's OK. I'm sure there's someone out there for you.

In fact, public libraries are struggling in the Internet age when millions have easy access to information without leaving home or office. Having noticed the marketing success of Starbucks, some universities, and even a few high school libraries, are now offering coffee. Vendors can be found in libraries at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, the University of Tennessee, the University of Pittsburgh and Auburn University, to name a few.

Students reportedly are clamoring for the library. Who'da thunk? Brew it and they will come.

The stunning success of Starbucks is more than a coffee story and speaks to something beyond the quality of the brew, though it is good. Starbucks is a metaphor for something that went missing in the culture and that the Seattle-based company seems to have found. Coffee isn't the thing; it's merely a road sign on the human map - the new North Star, the campfire in the dark wood, the kitchen hearth.

Yes, people like caffeine flavored with caramel and topped with whipped cream, but more than a jolt, they like human community.

In an increasingly sterile, impersonal, often-hostile, road-rage, broken-family society, people yearn for security, warmth and human connection. A few round tables and chairs offer sanctuary and the possibility of camaraderie. Suddenly, the bookstore isn't just another institutional environment, but is a homey, welcoming, friendly, democratic, uplifting place to unwind.

If you're alone in the big city, you can always go to the bookstore, grab a cuppa java, leaf through a few magazines and feel like you're part of the human race. Implicit in the sounds of espresso machines hissing and the smell of fresh ground coffee is an invitation to sit a spell.

"Here," says the invisible host. "Let me fix you a cup of coffee. You like to read?"

The phenomenon of Starbucks is secular communion. Scones and coffee, after all, aren't so far removed from the ritualized consumption of grape juice and bread; they just taste better.

The lesson isn't that everyone needs to drink more coffee, or if they do, that it necessarily be Starbucks. At Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, students protested Starbucks at the college's library, preferring a local vendor. But what's clear is that if you build places where human beings feel welcome to sit a spell, to talk and share a cup of coffee, they will come. We might keep that in mind as we reinvent what Katrina laid to waste.

Civilization won't suffer in the process if millions jazzed on java juice happen upon a book they can't put down.