Lifestyle

Why Upper West Siders Are Protesting the Closing of a ‘Magical’ Starbucks

When the first NYC Starbucks opened at 87th and Broadway in 1994, there were lines around the block. "We had to have crowd control at the door," Howard Schultz, the then Chairman, bragged...

When the first NYC Starbucks opened at 87th and Broadway in 1994, there were lines around the block. "We had to have crowd control at the door," Howard Schultz, the then Chairman, bragged to the Seattle Times.

But once they got inside, many New Yorkers didn't like what they saw: Starbucks was for phonies and yuppies; it was a sign of the end-times, a harbinger of Bank of Americas to come; its insidious spread had to be stopped.

25 years and countless stand-up routines about Starbucks’ sizing scheme later, some New Yorkers seem to have changed their mind about the chain, as evidenced by long bathroom lines and a grassroots effort to keep one Manhattan store open, first reported by neighborhood blog West Side Rag. Some Starbucks locations are now beloved local coffee shops worth fighting for -- not against.

“We the undersigned,” begins Upper West Sider Michael Schertz’s petition to keep his Starbucks from being shuttered by the corporation on January 31st, “protest the announced closing of the very special Starbucks store at 76th St. and Columbus Ave in NYC; a store which has added enormous value to our community over the years and which, far more than any other Starbucks store we've ever experienced, has actually embodied the human and social ideals the brand presumes to espouse.“

According to a Starbucks spokesperson, the store at 338 Columbus will be closed to “ensure a healthy store portfolio.”

“Petitioning to keep it open is hilarious.”

“Petitioning to keep it open is hilarious,” says Anastasios Nougos, the co-owner of Da Capo, a local café on the same block as the doomed Starbucks, “because at the end of the day, it’s a business. Obviously, they’re not making money, or they wouldn’t be closing.”

Free-market capitalism be damned, Schertz’s petition attempts an appeal to Starbucks’ better nature. “We wonder if Mr. Schultz or Mr. Johnson [Starbucks’ former and current CEO, respectively] understand the importance or reality of this store besides its current ‘performance metrics,’” Schertz writes. “Your employees should be rewarded for creating such a magical place in your name, not scattered to the wind or sacrificed in the name of maximizing profits.”

Calling a Starbucks "a magical place" is difficult to square with the familiar Starbucks experience of bemused baristas, shitty music, and Frappuccino-sipping teenagers. If anything, Starbucks is the opposite of magical; it’s specifically designed to never, ever be surprising.

As recently as 2017, New Yorkers were protesting the arrival of another Starbucks in their neighborhood. So what makes the UWS store so worth saving, even though there are five other Starbucks within a seven-block radius?

“A special Starbucks is able to balance its corporate consistency with a neighborhood feel,” says John McCourt, the 29-year-old blogger behind Starbucks and the City, which rated every Starbucks in Manhattan in 2013. (He rated the 338 Columbus location 3 out of 5 cups). “It feels in and of that particular community. In New York’s case, it could even be that particular cross street.”

McCourt understands why the locals are fighting to keep their Starbucks open. “They see it as a local store where they had all these experiences, and they want to keep that experience,” he says. “There’s a dichotomy between the local, personal relationship to that particular Starbucks and the people showing up to boycott [other stores]. [The boycotters] are looking at the larger problem of gentrification, of stripping away the uniqueness of the city.”

starbucks 76th and Columbus
Starbucks at 76th and Columbus | Google Maps

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Starbucks at 76th and Columbus is nearly empty, the line no more than three people deep. It certainly looks like every other Starbucks: wooden stools, faux-industrial details, big windows with a view of the Chase bank and an empty retail space across the street. A tall drip coffee tastes like every other Starbucks, too, which is to say bitter, burnt, familiar.

A baby screams over the sound of steaming milk and Emeli Sandé; an elderly woman squints over The New York Times, her cane resting on top of the newspaper stand. A group of five tourists carrying Levain Bakery bags walk in, look around, and walk right back out.

"Let’s keep in touch because businesses come & go, but friendships last forever. We love you."

Nathaniel Gaswint, 19, the barista behind the counter, is too busy restocking jugs of milk to see them leave. “Our regulars have become really connected with us,” he says, wiping his hands on his green apron. “We know them by name. We have great relationships with them. It’s very much a community.”

"It is with sadness to announce that this Starbucks branch will be closing January 31st," reads a handwritten sign above Gaswint’s head. "Please ask your favorite barista their new locations and we will be glad to share such information. Let’s keep in touch because businesses come & go, but friendships last forever. We love you." 

Janet Klutch, 67, a recent retiree who’s waiting for her post-Equinox spinach wrap, has lived on the Upper West Side since 1976. “I walk this way all the time, so I’m a regular,” she says. “They have a Starbucks on Broadway and 75th. They have one on 81st. They have one on 73rd. Why close the one that the public loves?” She sips her coffee, considering. “They closed the one on 67th, and I survived. I thought that was a nice location, too.”

A few Starbucks locations around the city maintain a level of local affection that transcends their corporate birthright. In Yorkville, a location on 1st Ave and 84th boasts a gigantic, shaded patio that fills up with backyard-starved residents all summer long. And the store on Smith St. in Cobble Hill -- a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its high concentration of freelancers and Lululemon-suited mommies -- has a spacious, semi-secret basement and plenty of room for parking your Razor scooter after school.

The Starbucks on Hudson Street in the West Village is a customer favorite in a neighborhood filled with café options. Although frequently busy, the location is purposefully cozy, with plenty of room for charging phones and talking with friends. “Best Starbucks in the city. Maybe even in the country,” reads a Yelp review by Edward N. “It has the same products and ambiance as a well run Starbucks, but it has the feel of an old world coffee shop.”

No Starbucks in New York City has more than 3.5 stars on Yelp. In fact, the 338 Columbus location squeaks by with a mere 2.5. Reviewers air their usual complaints: the coffee’s bad, the bathroom’s gross, the person taking my order copped an attitude.

But every location has regulars who love it, too. Whether it’s the nearness to their office or the daily rapport they’ve built with the baristas, they think their local Starbucks is very special, indeed.

Simply the idea of a “very special” Starbucks would have tasted bitter to the yuppie-scum-hating locals of yore.

So, how did we get here? Simply the idea of a “very special” Starbucks would have tasted bitter to the yuppie-scum-hating locals of yore. Somewhere between the opening of Kmart and the closing of Carnegie Deli, New Yorkers’ relationships with corporations seems to have softened.

Tom Hanks said it best in Nora Ephron’s 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail, which both anticipated and underestimated the way corporations (not to mention the internet) would take over New York City. “People who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self,” Hanks’ character says, as the camera lingers over shots of him and Meg Ryan ordering from a Starbucks on the Upper West Side.

you've got mail
'You've Got Mail' | Warner Bros.

As a signifier of corporatization, Starbucks has remained largely unchanged from the days when you might meet Tom Hanks in a chat room. Since the company began its '90s takeover, it’s managed to transform itself from a derided fad into a fact of New York life. As an alternative public space in a city with too few of them, it’s a place to charge your phone, grab an emergency espresso before a date, or simply loiter because you’re too early for an interview next door.

Starbucks no longer provides you with a defining sense of self. It's just... there. Like the George Washington Bridge, or pigeons.

As rents rise, local coffee houses shutter, and at least 20% of storefronts sit empty or poised for vacancy, chains like Starbucks -- the only ones who can afford to be there -- are replacing mom-and-pop shops in both the physical and emotional space of our daily lives. The fight to keep real local businesses has already been lost. The only thing left to fight for is the Starbucks on the corner.

“Take a look at the neighborhood. How many spaces are empty?” asks Nougus, the co-owner of Da Capo. On his block, RETAIL SPACE FOR LEASE signs litter the windows. “Landlords can sit on empty spaces forever. The city is shooting itself in the foot. The barrier has become so high that only businesses like Starbucks can afford it, and even they are going out of business.”

As Schertz’s petition points out, the Starbucks at 76th and Columbus should be doing well. “This store is a nexus with so much business potential it is staggering,” he writes in his persuasive (if not perfectly-punctuated) screed. “It is located across the street from a large middle school... It is one block from The Museum of Natural History, driving in tourist traffic from literally all over the planet... It is smack dab in the middle of one of the most affluent family neighborhoods in the world with generations of loyal customers... It is one block from the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, not to mention the balloon blowups the night before which attracts 10s of 1000s of tourists, 1000s of whom come to this very Starbucks that day alone. It is blocks from the finish of The New York Marathon... This doesn't even take into account the dozens of regulars who have been coming for well over a decade, often bypassing several other coffee shops (including other Starbucks) to do so.”

Apparently, all those marathon runners and museum goers and parade watchers and middle schoolers aren’t buying enough Unicorn Frappuccinos to balance the books. Ask any local business owner: Being beloved doesn’t necessarily pay the rent.

In the time since he blogged about visiting all 212 Starbucks in Manhattan, McCourt’s view of the ubiquitous chain has evolved. “When I first started the project, I was looking at Starbucks as the most accessible tool to explore my new city through something that’s comfortable,” he says. “I represented that new, ignorant New Yorker who didn’t care for the uniqueness of the city and was just using it to live a corporate lifestyle. It took six years of living in New York to get me to assess the value of that.”

“Do I want there to be so many Starbucks? No. But would I rather have a Starbucks there than an empty space? Certainly.”

Now, as he tries to frequent small businesses, he’s disturbed by the ways his neighborhood has changed. “A couple of years ago, a Starbucks in my neighborhood closed, and that space has since remained vacant. From a community perspective, do I want there to be so many Starbucks? No. But would I rather have a Starbucks there than an empty space? Certainly.”

Although more than 500 people have already signed Michael Schertz’s petition, it appears that, come January 31st, the Starbucks at 76th and Columbus could be just another another empty storefront.

So how will Upper West Siders get their caffeine fix once their very special Starbucks is closed?

“I would love if people came in and tried a proper coffee and not something mass produced,” says Nougos. “Da Capo’s staff lives locally, the coffee is bought locally. The money stays in the neighborhood. If you want to support something local, try us.”

The bean counters at Starbucks have a different idea. “We remain committed to continuing serving the community,” says their spokesperson. “Customers in the area will be able to visit our nearby store on 73rd & Columbus (three minute walk from the store at 338 Columbus Avenue).”

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Rachel Pelz is a contributor to Thrillist.