It’s a running joke with one of my best friends that whenever we meet up in London, we try our very best to find a twee, comfy little café but end up walking for miles until we have to settle for a Starbucks. This is most probably due to the fact that the areas we meet in tend to be commuter and shopping friendly, thus geared up for the mainstream and taken over by these big chains.
I loathe Starbucks for several reasons: they are famously unethical in their trading, they stamp out the smaller places like a giant bubonic plagued rat; even their interior set-up is just so soulless. Go to any Starbucks in any town in the country- world, even- and you’ll be met by the same sterile décor, the very same over-priced menu of frappa-wappa-mocha-mumachinos and identical sepia-toned prints hanging on the walls which themselves are embarrassed by the half-hearted pretence of being original, homely collections.
But last week I had a couple of hours to spare around Liverpool Street before an appointment. It’s a stupid habit of mine to just ‘go for a walk’ sometimes around the city: I am always convinced that I will just stumble upon somewhere fantastic or simply get to know the area better. Possibly one day I will, but so far I’ve only ever stumbled upon closed-down laundrettes and crack addicts, at best just becoming mildly disorientated and lost. So on this occasion, I wasted an hour walking through Shoreditch and down to Hoxton Market, which to my bitter annoyance turned out not to be a market of any kind. Yes, there were a few small, local cafes, but for some reason my internal sat-nav remained adamant that my feet keep moving and eventually ‘turn around when possible’.
There is something surprisingly uncomfortable in the unfamiliar for someone who is visiting an area. I love a good mosey around London, and I love a good independent café; in fact I have spent many an hour in such places in my university town just reading a book or avoiding work, which is why it was I who was most surprised that Friday morning when I found myself finally walking into a big, well-known chain café. And now I think I understand why even in a culture increasingly defensive of supporting local businesses, with a growing appreciation for the quirky underdog, chains continue to thrive. They are sterile, safe and familiar. Even the most lost and bewildered of all country bumpkins can find a Starbucks in unfamiliar surroundings and feel comfortable there, because they know exactly what to expect. They know how the system works and exactly what they will find to eat and drink. And however uninspiring those magnolia walls may be, I think sometimes that’s exactly what our busy, unsettled lives require: something perfectly predictable and constant.
I used to feel a certain sense of loss and disappointment with myself at settling for a Starbucks or Costa, but I realise more now that until I am a ‘regular’, with my very own local tea-shop to remain loyal to, it is silly to ruin a quick morning caffeine fix by worrying too much over the almost unobtainable, kitsch-café dream. So you win for now, Starbucks. You’re still not my favourite, but I appreciated that borrowed piece of familiarity on my slightly anxious Friday morning. You also have good-sized mugs.