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Pat Dryburgh

There are few things in my life that I can honestly say I love. I love my girlfriend. I love my family. I love music.

I also love Starbucks.

Obviously, my love for Starbucks isn’t based on the deep respect and confidence I have in my family, or in the passion and desire and admiration I have for my girlfriend. Yet I can honestly say that I love Starbucks. I like their drinks. I enjoy the atmosphere. I appreciate the generally excellent service. Put these things together and you get an incredible culture, and it is that culture, that “third place” that I love.

There’s been discussion over the past few years about Starbucks losing its identity. They tried to become a music hub, and then a convenient quick-stop with drive-thrus. Sadly, Starbucks corporately lost its “Third Place” identity.

There is one London Starbucks location, however, that seems to have bucked this trend. In fact, this Starbucks feels more like a 3rd place than any Starbucks I’ve been to. There are a number of initiatives this location has undertaken that set it apart from its corporate family.

The first difference is a bookshelf. In Canada many Starbucks are tied into a Chapters bookstore, but they are divided with signs that read “no unpurchased books beyond this point.” I understand the thinking, but it unfortunately detracts from the overall experience. The Starbucks I like most isn’t attached to a bookstore, but has a small bookshelf next to several comfortable chairs. There are books and international newspapers available free of charge, to be used by anyone. This simple addition speaks volumes about the ethos of the location. This location wants you to linger.

The next difference is its involvement with the community. Unlike any other Starbucks I know of in London, every Saturday night this location hosts an acoustic music night. The weekly event is free and provides a unique venue for artists and listeners to enjoy great music in a clean, well lit atmosphere rather than the dodgy bars downtown.

Finally, this location breaks the rules1. Last year Starbucks introduced free Wifi access for 2 hours if you had a registered Starbucks card. While it was a big step up from charging almost $10 an hour, it was a long way from what many other coffee shops offer. Last night I went out to coffee with a friend, and we were sharing music and designs online. As we were sharing, my friend’s card ran out of internet time. However, he had a second card with him; not a card he had purchased, but a recycled card from the Starbucks counter. The location had almost 20 recycled cards stashed away. While completely against the corporate policy, this location was doing something for their customers; this location was allowing their customers to fully experience the “third place” totally unhindered and uninterrupted.

This location is unique. It bucks the trend of its corporate parent. In fact, it has stayed truer to the brand of the corporation than the executives that run it. It has held true to the ethos of being a third place. A place of comfort, of community, and of sharing.

I believe this could be the future of corporate brands. Corporations provide the financial backing, the product and the core mission and values, and local locations are free to be reflective of their respective communities. They are allowed to break the rules for those they serve. They are allowed to invite outsiders in to provide a musical or artistic backdrop. And they are allowed to have their own unique identity in a sea of cookie-cutter brands.

  1. It is for this reason why I haven't named the location, just in case someone is reading.
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