Earlier this month, I pinched a book (as I often do) from my wife's bedside table. Michael Gates Gill's How Starbucks Saved My Life has one of those titles that's pretty catchy, but it's the author's blueblood background, matched against how he ended up as a Starbucks employee, that make the book intriguing.
Michael Gates Gill is the son of Brendan Gill, a still-legendary writer for The New Yorker. I have a copy of Here at the New Yorker down in my home office. Gill did well in life: he sailed through Yale, and on graduation went to work immediately for J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest advertising companies in the world. His client list was peerless.he managed to coauthor an evidently less-than-truthful book in the 1990s about how being fired is liberating.)
Facing a potentially life-threatening disease and without health insurance (a topic that resonates in the U.S.), he applies for a job at Starbucks, in large part because the coffee chain offers health benefits. He eventually becomes so desperate for those benefits that he becomes willing to take on any challenge, from cleaning toilets to working any shift he's offered. Most of all, he learns plenty from his young, black manager, whom he calls Crystal in the book, and who is based on Tiffany Edwards, the woman seen above with Gill in a USA Today photo taken on the book's release in 2007. (The paper's report is here.)
The book is light stuff - I went through it in a few evenings of bedtime reading - but I have to say that I was challenged by Gill's experiences, even though he acknowledges that he cast a fictional veil over details of the lives of his coworkers, almost all of whom were young and black.
It's the contrasts he draws that are fascinating, and which I would expect will drive the movie adaptation (to which Tom Hanks has been attached, even before the book was published). Because of his connections growing up in remarkable wealth and comfort, he was introduced to plenty of famous people; a scene involving Gill as a college student with Ernest Hemingway in Pamploma does, indeed, seem right out of a movie. Gill's world once included hobnobbing with Jackie Onassis; he finds himself nonetheless redeemed by eating a great big piece of humble pie, and learning profound lessons late in life.
A key nugget is his citation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald line about the dignity of work, which appears to underscore his late-in-life discoveries. (As recently as this winter, Gill was still working at a Starbucks, even though he is now closing on 70.) Trained as an executive to be cold to his subordinates, he is astonished to see how Starbucks prizes respect and discipline among all of its employees.
I liked the book, and would recommend it, but I had a nagging sense throughout that I was being sold something. Even though Starbucks was not officially involved with its production, one cannot be suspicious about Gill's sales pitch, which is unfailingly boisterous about the virtues of the company.
Moreso, I found the book a bit of a trifle. Enjoyable, like a snack. Which is a shame, because I had been hoping for more of a meal.