University City

Diversity, community thrive in new West Coast coffeehouse

It is a testament to the strangeness of our times: For the past year, though we live in Charlotte’s University City, my local Starbucks store has been in a San Fernando Valley strip mall in California.

Google Maps tells me it’s only 2,441 miles via Interstate 40 West (36 hours in current traffic). Not very local, maybe, but it is one really good Starbucks.

During the past 12 months, I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, helping my father after a rough surgery. My brother Bob and I have taken turns going out there, getting Dad to appointments with doctors, dealing with a backlog of financial and legal issues, and fixing up the old homeplace – not in the best of condition – for sale.

Bob and I spent our formative years in this modest California tract house, and cleaning it turned into time travel worthy of “Back To The Future.”

Old letters, photos, toys and knickknacks awakened memories of good times and bad, prompting angsty bouts of toss-or-keep agonizing.

In a box, I found an old toy car my dad helped me build for what was then called YMCA Indian Guides when I was 7. Sure, it is now a piece of junk, the wheels are gone and it is termite-chewed. But toss it in the dumpster?

Plus, taxes and financial issues demanded months of tedious labor (Bob shouldered most of that), and Dad’s medical challenges became a terrifying emotional roller coaster. Long stretches of quiet anxiety were followed by heart-dropping moments of panic when the news wasn’t good.

By accident, I found shelter from these storms within walking distance, in the nearby strip mall where I’d hung out as a kid. Tucked into the mall, right beside the grocery store where I held my first paid job as a bag boy way back in the 1960s, was a Starbucks.

“They’re everywhere!” I sneered to myself. “Oh, good grief!”

But I went in anyway. I felt completely drained – from worry, from decisions, from jet lag, you name it. A short dry cappuccino in a mug (as close as you can get to the original Italian) might do my soul good, I thought.

I stood in line, got my drink and plunked down in a comfy chair. The place was packed with a diverse crowd of various ages, languages and colors, chatting, laughing, arguing, selling, pecking maniacally at their phones.

The foam in my cappuccino smiled up at me. I took a sip. Ahhh.…

During the next 12 months, I ended up visiting that same Starbucks in West Hills over and over again. I tried other Starbucks locations and competing coffeehouses, but it was never the same.

While relaxing and recaffing, I pondered what makes a coffeehouse successful.

First, the coffee has to be decent: Starbucks has solved this problem by going for consistent B+, instead of varying randomly between A and F depending on the barista (a problem in University City indy coffeehouses, unfortunately – only Amelie’s in NoDa does consistent As, or used to, anyway).

Design counts. West Hills Starbucks isn’t fancy, but it works. There’s a comfortable mix of mismatched chairs, seats and tables inside and out. A group of teens or seniors can circle the wagons, parents with kids can fit in, and the odd loner from North Carolina can check email in a quiet corner. Even dogs have a place.

Ordering is easy. The line forms logically, and you can watch baristas in action while you wait. My theory is that a drive-through destroys this balance. The new University City Starbucks moved from its old strip mall location to a new store with a drive-through last year, and it has never recovered its community feel.

(Yes, you are right, though: That was me sitting in the car line ordering a latte last week.)

The manager and staff count. Becky Kim, manager of the West Hills store, has surrounded herself with workers who clearly like people and enjoy each other’s company. They smile and say “hello” as though they mean it, and they get orders right.

Kim jumps in to work the line whenever needed. That’s very different from another Charlotte Starbucks where the manager stalked behind worried-looking baristas with a clipboard, even during a frantic rush.

A new issue has emerged this month, after Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote an open letter requesting that patrons not bring firearms to Starbucks. There’s a longer, more complex tale here; I want to focus on just one point Schultz raised:

“Our values have always centered on building community rather than dividing people, and our stores exist to give every customer a safe and comfortable respite from the concerns of daily life.”

That’s exactly what I found and prized at the West Hills Starbucks. I never saw a gun there. Had I seen someone stroll up packing iron, I probably would have fled for my life.

The store’s varied customers expressed a full range of political opinions, from a stentorian pod of “greatest generation” males vocalizing daily attacks on Obama and Jane Fonda (What Hollywood liberal cast Hanoi Jane to play Nancy Reagan in “The Butler?” Blasphemy!), to knots of Arab, Iranian and Israeli friends hanging out at separate tables.

For this Starbucks and others I agree with Schultz: Guns are the last thing they, or we, need.

In light of Schultz’s letter and my experience in West Hills, criticizing big ol’ mean multinational Starbucks has a pretty low priority.

If you have great local indy coffeehouse, by all means support it. But if you have a good Starbucks, that works, too.

There’s a postscript. Dad’s house has sold, and he is now happily settling into his new home near Bob in a picturesque little town on the coast of Washington state. My constant trips to Los Angeles are a thing of the past.

Looks like I’ll have to find a new coffeehouse, Starbucks or otherwise, a bit closer to home.