The Hillcrest campaign to save our Starbucks store has surprised a lot of people, including, I’m sure, the people in Starbucks Canada’s corporate office. But one person who is not surprised is the Starbucks district manager responsible for our store. He told me that when he took over this district, he immediately recognized that our store is something special. It reminds him of his rural Ontario home. When he learned our store was to close, he knew there’d be a reaction.
The strength of that reaction has been remarkable. Our online petition has gained (as of this writing) more than 470 signatures and 110 comments testifying to the social importance of our store. Our city councillor Josh Matlow signed the petition before we even told him about it, and he publicly declared his support. BlogTO shared details of our campaign, the Toronto Star made us front page news, and Newstalk 1010 radio made us the topic of a roundtable discussion. We’ve sparked conversations not only on Starbucks but on broader questions of community and public space.
To our knowledge, no community has ever rallied to “save” a Starbucks store. There is definitely a humorous angle to this story — and we’ve tried to keep our campaign fun as well as serious — but it’s noteworthy and commendable that the media have not reduced our story to mere clickbait. The reporters have really understood and conveyed our concerns. They don’t have to agree, of course, but they have been very fair. It’s important for Toronto to have media like this.
I think the reporters “got” us because they came here in person, saw for themselves, and engaged us in conversation (as opposed to talking “at” us, as some critics have done). Another reason city reporters get us might be that our campaign resonates with reporters’ own experiences — as they go about their work, they’ve learned to enjoy meeting a wide diversity of people in Toronto beyond a narrow social bubble. This diverse experience of human connection is what our Hillcrest Starbucks is all about.
Our campaign speaks to a fundamental human need for acceptance and belonging. People find different ways to meet this need. One way is through coffee shops. Some shops provide intimate spaces with strong identities, e.g. a region of France, or hipster steampunk. Other shops provide a generic space which some people may find boring but others really appreciate for its openness. It’s important to have both styles in our neighbourhoods, as they cater to different personalities and purposes. None of this merits judgement as “good” or “bad”.
Of course hardly anyone wakes up in the morning thinking “I want to satisfy my need for acceptance and belonging”. Nor do people wake up wanting to give money to Starbucks. The commuter is wanting a coffee, fast. The new mother is wanting to get out of the house to a place that’s nice and easy for her baby. The middle school kid wants to experience “going out with friends” in a place that’s welcoming to kids but still feels “grown up”. Business people want a neutral and quality place to meet clients. Students and writers want a work environment that allows them to be with others. And some people come regularly because they want to stir their coffee for 20 minutes and meticulously pick up all the litter and talk to themselves — their behaviour is different, not “strange”, and it’s important that they, too, have a place to be themselves while being part of their community.
Everybody comes for an individual purpose, and then because the place serves so many diverse needs, people also get an experience of connecting across ages, abilities, occupations, and personalities. People come to value that experience as a connection with community. It’s telling that once people get this experience, they don’t want to lose it.
In Hillcrest it so happens this experience is provided by Starbucks.
It’s important to note that Starbucks does this intentionally. At least that’s what it says in its mission statement which speaks of being a “third place” of inclusive community and deeper human connection. What our campaign says to Starbucks is, “You are achieving your mission to an exemplary degree in Hillcrest. We’re living what you say you value. And in terms of human connection, there’s something terribly inhuman in shutting down and leaving without so much as a word of explanation. The store is profitable. There’s no issue with the landlord. So, why? Please reconsider in light of what we’re telling and showing you. Act according to your values and how we’ve come to experience you in Hillcrest as something good and important in our community.”
To those who say “Starbucks is a business, let them do what they want” — well, quite. No one’s in a position to force them to stay, any more than you can force someone to stay in relationship or be a good friend. It’s not a question of what’s allowed, it’s a question of what is right. Who thinks it’s right to forge a close connection and then abandon it with stoney silence or a paltry unilateral text? Perhaps it’s uncommon to hold companies to account in such human terms, but why shouldn’t we? Especially when it’s a company that embraces these human values as its mission.
In Hillcrest, we’re still hopeful that Starbucks will show us its human face.
As for those saying “why don’t you go somewhere else” and “there’s another Starbucks at Bathurst” — First, location matters. Everyone in our area knows that Bathurst and St Clair is a totally different environment than Christie. We’ve documented this on our campaign twitter account. There’s testimony to it in the petition comments. Starbucks knows it too. Second, yes it’s true that many patrons of Hillcrest Starbucks could meet their practical needs elsewhere in the various, more niche establishments. (Many, not all.) What you’re missing when you make this suggestion is the experience of broader social connection and community that will be lost if everyone has to go their separate ways. The whole point of the campaign is that Starbucks functions here as a community hub. Councillor Matlow understands this. Maybe not everyone needs this hub, but they should recognize that it’s a need for many.
“Why don’t you invite in another franchise” — It’s a private landlord, they’re going to do what they want. Perhaps we can influence the landlord, but the signs aren’t hopeful. The campaign’s been on for almost two weeks, prominent in the media, and still no contact with the landlord. It’s possible — we’re trying to confirm — that the landlord has an exclusivity agreement with other coffee places which forbids a new coffee shop from opening on this site. You know the new A&W at Dupont and Christie? If Starbucks leaves Hillcrest, there’s a good chance we’ll get something like that here too. Will that please our anti-corporate critics?
Some people have political criticisms of Starbucks, but I think such things can be said of almost any company that operates in the global market. It’s hard to find any large company that will satisfy all of your moral concerns. We all make compromises, and it’s easier to understand our own compromises than those of others. When you don’t value something very much (for e.g. maybe a community hub is not a need for you) then it’s easy for you to tell other people to give that thing up in conformity with what you consider to be a morally superior position. Take that attitude too far and we’ll all be living in a fundamentalist dictatorship.
Starbucks is a company that has been doing something very good in Hillcrest. Our solidly progressive city councillor recognizes this. And Starbucks is a company that wants to do good — or so it says. It has an entire department dedicated to Social Impact. I’m sure the staff in that department want their work to be meaningful. The company’s concept of “third place” shows a commendable understanding of human needs and values.
Surely we can all agree that Starbucks is capable of a genuine human response to the very human campaign in Hillcrest. We’re giving it a chance to do so.
One way or another, in Hillcrest, Starbucks is going to show us what kind of company it wants to be.