Welcome to Starbucks
As I walk up Pike Place from Stewart to Virginia, I’m not met with the usual confusion I’ve come to associate with Seattle’s Pike Place Market. However, there is still that definite energy in the air that always hits me whenever I walk streets lined with produce stands, restaurants and shops. It’s not just the energy coming from the people around me, but from the market itself. To me, public markets have always seemed very much alive—each having its own unique character and personality. Here it is no different. With stands selling fresh flowers, the art of local Native Americans as well as the famous flying fish market, Pike Place is a reflection of the Northwest.
I continue my walk as a man in front of me puffs on his cigarette. As he exhales, I step to the side in order to avoid the dangers of secondhand smoke, but am unsuccessful. I frantically try waving the smoke away when I see it. The sign is plain and unobtrusive with three brown circles on a white rectangular board. Each circle contains the same image of a two-tailed, bare-breasted mermaid with a crown atop her long hair. Along the inside border of each circle are four words: Starbucks, Coffee, Tea, Spices.
I am standing in front of the original Starbucks store.
Situated between Market Optical Eyewear and a nameless ethnic food store specializing in Mexican goods, there is nothing special or significant to make this store front stand out from the rest. The front display window on the left advertises the new Pike Place Roast with a basket holding a few giant bags of coffee beans. On the window, the words “Cappuccino” and “Caffe” are painted along the middle bottom and on the right window, the words “Latte” and “Espresso.” It’s obvious to anybody that passes by that it’s a Starbucks, but not until they divert their attention from the four-piece band right in front of the store that they can see the glass sign in the window saying this is the first Starbucks store.
I slip inside. Almost immediately, the smell of ground coffee beans invades my nostrils and the sounds of espresso machines, steamers and smooth rhythm and blues tap on my eardrums.
“Tall vanilla latte for Walter!” one of the three baristas behind the counter calls out as she sets the drink down on the bar.
I make my way toward the register, ready to stand in line, but find that there is no line to order at the moment—only a line to pick up. A man in his early to mid twenties—presumably Walter—walks by me after having picked up his drink from the bar. I place my order and once the girl behind the counter has written it on the paper to-go cup—now sporting the company’s old brown logo in honor of the launch of the Pike Place Roast—she tosses it over to the barista in charge of making my drink. Not unlike the fish I’ve seen being tossed around at the market only a few doors down the street. While I wait for them to call out my tall non-fat chai I look around to take it all in; to see where the source of our caffeine addiction began.
Unlike other stores, this Starbucks doesn’t have the usual glass case with pastries and sandwiches. Besides the small selection of cookies at the register, there is no food available for purchase here. On the front counter are black and white photos of the store’s earlier days as well as a few photos of the market. There’s also a picture of a room filled with seeds and a man standing behind a counter. My drink has been called, so when I go up to the bar to pick it up, I ask the barista about the photo.
“Before this became Starbucks, this used to be a seed and feed shop,” she tells me.
This was the last answer I’d expected and I’m even more taken aback when the barista—a woman in her mid-twenties named Marcelle—tells me that before that, the location was used as a processing center for the Japanese internment during the second World War.
“It’s ironic because back then, Japanese people came through here for a completely different reason than they do today,” she tells me.
Well, that’s an understatement, I thought to myself.
While Japanese Americans were once forced to go through here against their will, nowadays not only do Japanese and other Asian tourists gather here in droves, but tourists from all around the country as well as the globe. As if on cue, a group of Asian men enter the store. Instead of heading to the counter to order a drink, they make a beeline toward the shelves filled with souvenirs. It’s not until their arms are literally overflowing with mugs and teddy bears do they finally stand in line to make a purchase. I notice that none of the three men orders a drink. I note my observation to Marcelle.
“About seventy-five percent of our sales are in retail,” the young manager tells me. “We’re the third largest in sales in the world behind two stores in Asia.”
I’m not really surprised about this little factoid since the store is such a tourist attraction and considering how busy they are, even for a weekday. What really surprises me though is when Marcelle tells me those stores in Asia also sell espresso machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars while this store sells souvenir mugs that cost ten.
As my chat with Marcelle continues, she gives me a little Starbucks history lessons. She tells me how the store first opened on April 1, 1971 and was originally located a block down the street, and didn’t move to its present location until 1973 after a fire at the first location. Throughout the conversation, we’re interrupted by customers—some are the store’s very few regulars and are on a first name basis with Marcelle, others are tourists inquiring about the price of different items. This is where I learn Marcelle can speak a bit of Spanish and that a lot of the other baristas in the store can speak a variety of languages, which goes a long way in this location for obvious reasons.
As she is telling me this, an older gentleman interrupts us. Just looking at him, you’d expect him to be any bum off the street. His clothes are old, worn and torn; his teeth look beyond the help any dentist could provide; and his lean frame could use a hearty meal or two. However, despite all of this, he and Marcelle appear to be very familiar with each other. His name is Jackson and he’s actually a renowned artist whose work still hangs in museums in Paris and New York.
“Jackson comes in every day and he acts like he works here. He likes to clean the countertop,” Marcelle indicates the counter at which we’re standing. “He’s been here longer than all of us and gives us all nicknames.”
That explains why Jackson calls her Chichi—a reference to Chichi Wyman she tells me because according to Jackson, Marcelle is supposed to be a multimillionaire. Jackson and “Chichi’s” conversation continues a bit before he has to leave. As he leaves, he addresses me and I’ve found that I’ve been given my very own nickname.
“See you later Shorty.”
“Bye Jackson,” I reply with a smile.
It looks like I’ve been welcomed into the Pike Place family, which is fine by me.