Wednesday, March 20, 2019

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Some Starbucks-crossed Thoughts

A few days ago I got a call from a woman at CBC Radio in Toronto asking me if I had any comment on the announcement that a Starbucks outlet is to open on Bloor Street West, a block away from Dooney’s Café. She called me because I’d been among the dozen or so who’d organized a successful fight against a 1995 attempt by Starbucks to close Dooney’s and replace it with one of their own.

The 1995 event started with what appeared to be a done deal, but it soon transpired that the building landlord had sold the lease to Starbucks without offering a renewal to Dooney’s Cafe proprietor Graziano Marchese, which made it unethical and subject to litigation. A court case was launched against the landlord, but more important, the whole thing created a public relations nightmare for Starbucks, which was accused of neighbourhood-busting and subjected to a series of embarrassing demonstrations organized by the media-savvy writers and others who’d been using Dooney’s as a hangout for many years. They—we, I guess—organized the protests because we didn’t want to lose the café, and because we liked Graziano and didn’t want to have him replaced by an American franchise and its minimum-wage barristas.

Most of us understood that the real villain in the piece wasn’t Starbucks at all, but then-landlord John Hix, an architect with a reputation for community-sensitive projects. Hix recognized that having a corporate tenant with a long lease would vastly inflate the value of the building, which he would then turn over to some willing buyer and screw you to both Graziano and the neighbourhood. So, after some initial slithering, Starbucks did the right thing: it swallowed the lease and rented the premises to Graziano as a sub-tenant—and it bought several full page ads in the Toronto Star making it clear that Starbucks wasn’t there to break up the neighbourhood and its institutions. Hix eventually lost the court case, which cost him some of the profits from selling the building, and life went back to normal on Bloor West.

I did have some comments to make about the opening of a Starbucks outlet on Bloor Street, but I quickly got the sense that my comments weren’t what the CBC woman wanted. She was looking for a doom&gloom sound byte from me, something to the effect that I was appalled, indignant and incensed that Starbucks was opening nearby—or, strained, worried or terrified at what this would do to Dooney’s. I wasn’t appalled, and I wasn’t frantic with worry, I told the woman, and I don’t think many others were, either. It’s a free country, and Starbucks can do business wherever it likes. Then I went on to talk about the general effect of corporate franchises—for which I use the shorthand term "virus"—filtering into the Bloor West streetscape, and about the fundamental differences between corporate and local culture.

The strip of Bloor Street West on which Dooney’s sits has, like every other street in North America, been delocalizing and corporatizing with virus since the early 1980s. Taco Bell arrived in the early 1990s, along with a McDonalds down the street, and a Pizza Pizza. Last year a Friendly Greek outlet opened, starved for customers for a couple of months, and then burned down and was closed permanently. A few months later, a Tim Hortons opened up across the alley. In the blocks east of Dooney’s there is a series of second tier food franchises, most of them serving the current food rage, sushi, and most are languishing. This is a mutable neighbourhood, with the only detectable trends being the likelihood of more virus, and the gradual but apparently inexorable onslaught of Koreans, who now have the blocks just west of Dooney’s solidly locked up, and are beginning to filter across Bathhurst Street by opening up all night cybercafe/convenience stores. Dropping a Starbucks into this melange isn’t exactly a catastrophic event. As virus goes, Starbucks is far from the worst, and it likely will have a greater effect on the Second Cup franchise across the street and the Tim Hortons at midblock than on Dooney’s.

So, having given this thumbnail sketch of the way things are to the slightly impatient CBC woman, I tried to get her to understand that the important issue wasn’t whether Starbucks is the spawn of Satan, but that the culture of corporate virus is gradually replacing local culture on Bloor West—and everywhere else. She let me know that this was all very interesting, but not a chaseable news item. If I wasn’t going to be burning crosses in front of the new Starbucks, she needed to find someone who would. I wished her luck and she hung up, her parting tone implied that I ought to be vaguely ashamed of myself for passing up the op to be newsworthy.

But real life, along with its truly affective issues, frequently aren’t newsworthy, or at least, don’t parse for the one-dimensional cliché-mongering that passes as daily news. It’s way too particular and undramatic. Dooney’s Café, for instance, works as a restaurant and as a local cultural institution almost solely because of Graziano Marchese, a short, dark, good-looking man in his mid-40s who is anything but a walking cliché. Graziano is sweet-tempered and mercurial at the same time, absent-minded, hard-of-hearing, and yet quick-witted and perceptive. He’s wholly Italian (Calabrese, actually) and yet competently cosmopolitan, famously discreet if you need to sit and work, yet ready to talk about anything you’re up for—if he’s not on the phone trying to get a contractor to finish the renovations on his mother’s house or fielding a catering order. He’s a human being, in other words, as idiosyncratic and particular as a corporate franchise is not.

Dooney’s is the same way. The quality of the food goes up and down depending on who’s in the kitchen. Right now, the dinner menu is well beyond merely good and serviceable thanks to chef Joe Tucci, and that has made the outdoor patio in full summer, surrounded by night-scented nicotiana, both a culinary and olfactory treat. A couple of years ago it was the lunch menu taking the honours, and at other times, weekend brunch or late night desserts. The menus change with each chef, not because of corporate market research into what the largest number of people will buy at optimum profitability to head office, and no Dooney’s menu gets subjected to a focus group. The only focus groups I’ve encountered at Dooney’s are the impromptu kind, and when they don’t dissolve into silliness and laughter, their recommendations get ignored by Graziano, who pretends not to understand—or even hear—what they’re trying to bully him into. "I just want to make people happy," is his standard reply. It means, "Leave me alone, I’ve had enough."

The pleasure and value of Dooney’s, and of all local culture, lies in this sort of specificity. Where the attentions within local culture are weak or absent, it produces squalor—and most of the time, that quickly leads to oblivion. When attentions are focused, as they usually are at Dooney’s, they produce unique pleasures. The value of the local lies here, and in the fact that it tells you where you are. Dooney’s, for instance, could only exist in Toronto, and more precisely, only in Toronto’s west side, with its heavily Italian population, who seem to respond best to the city’s richly humid summers and its relaxed and often merry diversity. Dooney’s clientele includes a contingent of mostly left wing Italians, a loose mix of Anglo or Jewish academics, writers, visual artists and creative people from television and film. But there is a group of elderly Hungarians who show up most afternoons, parking their handicapped-placarded cars higgelty-piggelty along Borden Street, a sizable bunch of middle-aged women who aren’t definable as either strictly lesbian or feminist, and seasonal convergences of students, tourists and uptowners. They’re all very Toronto, in other words, civil, tolerant, confident enough of their welcome that they don’t feather up like tribesmen, occasionally noisy or demanding, fun to observe, and without a detectable single commercial denominator.

Corporate franchises—virus—operate very differently. They create comforts by hyperventilating a market denominator, one that is generally aimed both low and common, and always without any of the edges haphazard specificity brings. When you enter a franchise, you cease to be in any specific city. You are in Starbucks, or Tim Horton’s, or McDonalds, and you’re there to consume their products, and to be comforted by their artificial intelligence surround, which is designed to obliterate particularity. There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. A lot of people have miserable or disappointing or nerve-wracking lives, and the environment every virus seeks to create provides respite from one’s particularities, or from the sometimes unpleasant particularities that surround us in our daily lives.

It has been argued, sometimes eloquently by writers like Joshua Meyrowitz in his 1986 book No Sense of Place, and more often hysterically by others, that virus is a powerful factor in what is depriving postmodern human societies of a sense of particularity and meaningful community. It is true that franchising consumer corporations—along with the whole set of economic tropes we’re now characterizing as "globalization"—seek to denominate people into profitable and easily manipulated markets, and that they frankly don’t give a shit about our individuality or our indigenous cultures. Why should they? A corporation is about profits and shareholders—and maybe, as we’re now finding out, excessive and undeserved management bonuses and stock options. To ask corporations to respect the specific integrity of any local community is like asking a pig to fly.

That said, if the current economic Zeitgeist prevails, there’s a point, somewhere in the not-so-distant future, where Bloor West will cease to be a specific, dynamic place, and will become another unlocated strip mall. There are lots of those already, and they seem like a new form of hell to me. The 10 kilometre stretch of highway north of Kelowna, B.C. is the most spectacularly depressing one I can think of, but I’m aware of hundreds of others, and I’m reliably informed that such environments now number in the tens of thousands across the continent, each with mile after mile of virus scrambling to entice consumers to low and common market denomination. They’re each forms of hell, social consumption without society, civility or community, comfort without location or individuation.

I don’t want to live in or by or even near any of them. I was raised in a small town where I knew nearly everyone, and I grew up expecting that part of a normal life was having a fundamental understanding of what people did and why. That I ended up living in a downtown neighbourhood in Canada’s largest city—and the most culturally diverse city in the world—is no accident. Downtown Toronto’s west side is, along with a couple of other downtown neighbourhoods in Canada’s major cities, among the only small towns left in the country, and the only places we have where cultural specificity and civic particularity thrive. In its most simple formulation, that means that I know my butcher, baker, grocer and tailor by their first names, like I did 40 years ago.

It happens that I know Graziano Marchese better than any of them, and my life is very much the better for knowing him. I play baseball with him in the summer, I celebrate New Years with him and his extended family, and during the late summer I take great pleasure in going with him to farmers’ market at the Ontario Food Terminals to buy my tomatoes and peppers and wild blueberries and peaches and the other locally-produced foods that the corporations can’t match in quality or price because their profit manuals tell them it’s easier and more profitable to truck such things in from California and Florida. Graziano, along with the daily fare at Dooney’s, makes life sweet and specific, for me and for a lot of other people.

So, let Starbucks come to Bloor West. You won’t catch me there, huddled around its market niche with all the other alienated strangers.

1985 w.

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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