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11 Apr 2010

How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill

When I first read the title, it sounded like a story of someone who started working at Starbucks and went on to become somebody in life, possibly a writer (he wrote this book, after all). Or maybe he was struck by a sudden inspiration while sipping coffee in Starbucks one day. I wondered if I cared to buy a book like that.

Then I read the punch-line that went with the title - "The Riches-to-Rags Story of a Man Who Had It All, Then Lost It All and Found It Again". At this point, I decided it was a narration of how a rich man who was driven to the point of bankruptcy and rose again after a stint at Starbucks. Hmm, maybe I should read it, I thought. Books like that have a lot of positive attitude in them, if nothing else.

I turned to the back cover to read the synopsis and see if that would help me decide. It starts off with the following excerpt. I bought the book home, just for a feel for some die-hard attitude and aggressive behaviour, which I was sure the book would be full of.

"A candid, moving and inspirational memoir about a high-flying businessman who is forced to re-evaluate his life and values when he suddenly loses everything and goes to work in Starbucks."

Since the day I bought the book until I started reading it today (because I badly needed some positive reinforcement), I was pretty sure that the book would be an inspirational tale of rising from a fall, back to an earlier glory or more. Why I thought that, is beyond me. The book clearly says it is a "Riches-to-Rags" story.

As the punchline and the title aptly suggest, it's the story of Michael Gates Gill, born to an affluent family and now, working as a barista at Starbucks in the late years of his life. Born to a celebrity-like dad who worked at a newspaper in New York, partying with the Queen & poets like Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, etc and studying at Yale, getting into an advertising job straight out of college and quickly moving up the ladder, Gates' life is one of comfort and luxury. He has a good family, with four children, and a good life.

When he gets fired by a young executive, who he helped move up in life, he knows she had to chose between firing him to prove her loyalty and macho business sense or getting emotional and screwing up her career prospects. Knowing does not change facts or help the feeling. He had given 25 years of his life and his loyalty to JWT but now, at 53, he was not part of their young brigade agenda. 

His hopes to start a career in consulting remain an unfulfilled dream, long after his severance package has depleted and he ends up broke. In addition to this, his attempt to distract himself from his problems in the form of exercise/gym, lead him to meet the woman he ends up in an affair with and bears him a son. When he confronts his wife and children with the news, divorce follows and the wife gets to keep their house and four children. 

As Gates says in the book, his baby Jonathan remains his only friend for a long while after that, for Jonathan's mother soon loses interest in Gates as his availability for her increases post his divorce. 

With no job, no family and no money, it was a stroke of good luck that Gates meets Crystal, his African-American boss at Starbucks. An unexpected, unprepared interview, some stressful days of waiting later, he finds himself with a job he feels completely unqualified for. He talks about how he finds his way around at Starbucks, with an altogether different culture - a young crowd with an average age of 20, a group of African-Americans (the kind he had, in his old-fashioned sense, stayed away from in his better days). As he cuts through a new world and finally "gets it", he finds satisfaction and an acceptance he realizes he had never felt in his richer days.

He talks of how he starts with a cleaning job and gets excited at his first real clean bathroom work, learning to pull the till, handle guests and become one of the legendary Partners (what the people who work at Starbucks are called) at Starbucks. Finding acceptance in his 4 children, living with a hearing problem caused by a tiny tumour in his head, enjoying the family he finds at Starbucks, Gates is so full of his new life that it comes through in his book. 

The book is one long narration of his excitement at his new-found life, his everyday life at the first Starbucks at Ninety-Three and Broadway where it all started. Reading the book is like listening to an old man gush excitedly about his new job, every single thing he learns in the new job and how much he enjoys it. There is no entertainment, no grand examples of risks taken and masterstrokes leading to the rise of a great empire. Just an old man, chattering about his time at the Broadway Starbucks. As I read it, it felt like I was sitting at a table at Starbucks, across an old man in his seventh decade, happily talking and I did not want to interrupt.

I've finished the book and old Mr. Mike has gone back to work at his Starbucks store somewhere in New York. Funny coincidence that just a couple of days ago, I was thinking of what it would be to have a few months off and be able to do something totally different from my current job, something not for money but for a slice of a different kind of life. Today, Mike introduced me to the inside of a coffee house.

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