Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Peets”

Starbucks Not So Starry?

This week, Starbucks are celebrating their 40-year anniversary.

There are a lot of people out there who really have it in for Starbucks. Just google anti-Starbucks search words and see for yourself. I have to say that while I am not particularly expecting the company to be perfect, I am far from joining the protesters, despite having repeatedly written about the multinationals having too much power. I prefer to go to a local coffee shop, not because I dislike Starbucks, but because I want to support local traders.

But here’s the deal. The coffee must be good, the ambiance conducive and comfortable to write, the bathrooms clean and the staff happy and interactive. If I go to a local coffee shop and find this, I will stay loyal. In Berkeley we take our coffee seriously, and so do the local coffee shops. But when challenged in certain areas of San Francisco and on the road, I often turn to the green goddess of Starbucks or the solid, reliable Peets coffee.

I have read several books about the special Starbucks mentality and embraced it in training my own staff and as a model for creating an environment and service to our students. I have written here positively on several occasions about Starbucks. I have defended their Fair Trade policy and complimented their coffee grounds for compost initiative.

But there are a lot of people out there who hate, yes I said hate, Starbucks. Try this website (you really only need to read its name) or the You Tube video below.

I was surprised to see the allegations about Starbucks heavy-handedness against attempts for a workers union. In The Accidental Activist, the multinational is the bad guy and my heroes admonish them for exactly what is being claimed here.

Starbucks supporters: what do you say about the company being anti-trade union? I need to hear that they are wrong. It will be easier than changing my drinking habits.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/



Support Independently Owned Businesses.

I saw the following pitch on the Afikomen Judaica home page the other day.

Think about which three independently owned businesses you’d miss most if they were gone. Stop in & say hello. Pick up a little something that will make someone smile. Your contribution is what keeps those businesses around.

If half of the employed U.S. population spent $50 each month in independently owned businesses, their purchases would generate an estimated $42.6 billion of revenue. For every $100 spent in independently owned businesses, $68 returns to the local economy. Spend it online and nothing comes home.

Pick 3. Spend 50. Save your local economy.

This initiative is being driven by the 3/50 project that was initiated by a blog entry from Cinda Baxter and it is clearly compelling.

Living on a limited budget I often struggle with how to finish the month financially and support local businesses and the philanthropy I believe in. The theme of big business encroachment is an integral theme of my novel, The Accidental Activist and is based on a true story involving McDonald’s.

I want to support local business. My father was a shopkeeper and the bespoke tailor of his community. However I do think that there needs to be something reciprocal, that our ideology should not be taken for granted. The local independently owned business might not be able to compete over price, but I think I would be willing to spend a bit more for similar or better quality/service/experience.

Here’s an example. I enjoy coffee from Peets and (yes) Starbucks. I enjoy the product (choosing exactly what I want), the clean environment (bathrooms), and the ambiance (good music). I seem to always receive cheerful service and, if the coffee doesn’t taste right, quick no-nonsense redress.

I will support a local coffee shop before entering either of the aforementioned chains if they can reach the same standard. I am even willing to pay a bit more, but often there is a problem with the quality of the experience in one of the factors listed above. For the record, I love Java on Ocean in Ingleside (SF) and Local123 in Berkeley.

Nothing can make the experience worse than the consumer feeling that s/he is being taken for granted. I have read a lot of Starbucks literature and am impressed with their customer-driven culture. I need to feel this from the local competition. I have recently had two negative experiences in small bookstores. It is frustrating. I could easily have purchased the books I sought on Amazon quicker, more efficiently, and cheaper, but I chose the local option.

It is not enough to procure my, or anyone else’s, business just because you are small, local and independent. I need to feel the love. When I do, I will come back for more without a second thought. Is there a future for the independently owned business?


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


Black Oak Bookstore

Black Oak was one of the first independent bookstores that I perused when I arrived in Berkeley. I had gone to discover the Gourmet Ghetto, made famous by Alice Waters, discovered a pizza place that only made one type of pizza a day but charged a fortune and still had people lined up outside. I also discovered a Jewish deli, the original Peet’s coffee and, given that I hadn’t found a job yet, that I couldn’t afford to eat until I returned to my friend’s house.

I did discover, within this tasteful enclave of decadence, that I could afford a book or two – used, from the bargain bin of the Black Oak bookstore. Alon means Oak in Hebrew, black has long been my favorite color (and not just because it makes me appear slimmer).

Black Oak Books is no longer situated on Shattuck Ave. They have now moved to 2618 San Pablo Ave., between Parker and Carleton, a precarious five-minute walk from my house. As with all Independent bookstores, these past few years has marked a time of great transition for Black Oak Books.

They streamlined their business focusing on Internet books, buying books, re-pricing books from the old store, and continued looking for a new retail location. T’Hud Weber, the store manager, told me the new premises is still a work in progress, and they plan to begin holding author events and other community events. I found the place just as charming as their former premises. I have to admit: give me the smell of books, a smiling staff, the offer of an author event, and the offer of bargains, and I’m yours!

Here are Ms. Weber’s answers to my questions:

1) What value does your bookstore provide for the local community?
As we are in a very different location in comparison to our previous location, we are still evaluating the community needs/wants. We have had very good feedback from the neighborhood. We’ve been repeatedly thanked for opening a bookstore in this location, and have been told that this is “exactly what the neighborhood needs” which is wonderful to hear. We strive to have the lowest possible prices for used books, we have a large “Bargain Books” section priced at .50-$1.00 per book, and we have special sales for new books every other week. We also buy books from the community.

2) Who is the most inspiring author you have met? Why?
The most inspiring author I’ve met is Neil Gaiman. He’s a great storyteller, and is able to jump and blur boundaries between children’s/adult fiction, genres, characters, and voices. And, hey, he’s kind of a rock star.

3) What community events or campaigns has your bookstore been involved in?
We have not been directly involved in any community events or campaigns as of yet. Again, we’re still trying to gauge what the community needs from us at this point. However, we do put up flyers/postcards/posters from neighborhood vendors upon request.

4) If you were to retire tomorrow what would you most miss from your work?
I would miss my role as the “Book Adoption Manager”: helping unite people with that special, rare, hard to find, odd, or sentimental book. I would also desperately miss the smell and feel of the books, as this has been a particular fetish of mine since early childhood.

With all the challenges facing the independent neighborhood bookstore, I hope Black Oak not just survives, but thrives. They have shown the necessary propensity to adapt. I wish them well.

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

The Independant Bookstore

A friend went to her local independent bookstore and browsed the shelves intent on purchasing my book, Oilspill dotcom. It wasn’t there. Unperturbed, she went to the counter and asked the employee to order her a copy.

The assistant told her that they are not ordering single copies of books just now and would not be able to order Oilspill dotcom for her. Now I understand that the small bookstore has limited shelf space and there are 2 million books out there. I even understand (begrudgingly) why a bookstore where I haven’t appeared, or am not a local author, would not be sensitive to the legions of grassroots activists and readers who are seeking out my novel.

My friend went home and ordered the book online, I assume from Amazon.com.

I am a big supporter of the independent bookstore. I appreciate the service that Amazon provides, but if I plan to buy a new book, I would rather patronize my local bookstores. I admire Starbucks – they make good coffee, have cheerful staff, and a vibrant and clean store. But providing that they match the standards, I would rather give my business to a local coffee shop.

Times are hard, and the consumer field is becoming even more competitive. If Darwin was a capitalist (I’ve no idea), he would probably suggest that Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon will not need to share the field with the independent bookstore for much longer. Likewise, Starbucks, Peets, and Tully’s should be percolating the death knell of local coffee shops, grinding them into the dust, relegating them to has-beans…I’ll stop. Who said blogging couldn’t be fun?

Whether or not the mom and pop shops’ days are numbered, I would rather see them for a while longer. I feel, maybe irrationally, that they have a place in my ‘community’.

Which is why I don’t understand why the independent bookstore employee didn’t go the extra mile and order Oilspill dotcom for my friend. Perhaps they make less money from the small publisher than from major distributors, but hey, isn’t that ironic? My friend might have been able to buy my book from Amazon for less, and certainly didn’t have to leave her house, park her car and walk into the store. Furthermore, that satisfied customer might have returned to buy the next bestseller she fancies. More likely, she bought it when she purchased Oilspill dotcom and saved on the free shipping for a $25+ order.

There is a fascinating report out on the state of the book industry. What makes it fascinating is that it is cautiously optimistic of a literary future. But it does challenge the future of the independent bookstore, and anticipates a time in the not-too-distant future when e-books will match tree-books for sales. The author is Danny O. Snow, who works for the Society for New Communications Research, and his report can be found at http://www.sncr.org/

So let us end on a positive note. The book industry is not dying, but it is evolving and everyone: authors, publishers, distributors, bookstores, need to learn how to adapt to the ever-changing reality. That includes the independent bookstores, if they want to continue to exist. And I hope they do

Good Writing,




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