On February 1, 2021 the Starbucks location at 811 Hornby Street in Vancouver closed for good after exactly 33 years in business. It’s one of about 300 Starbucks Canada locations in set for closure by the end of March but this was no ordinary Starbucks.
In 2021 Starbucks seems as commonplace and corporate as Wal-Mart, Shoppers Drug Mart or McDonald’s. Indeed, there were 30,000 locations in 80 markets as of June 30, 2019. However, when the Hornby cafe opened on February 1, 1988 there were only 15 other locations worldwide including one at Waterfront Station, 12 in Seattle and two in Chicago.
In other words, it was only the second location in Canada and the fourth outside of Seattle.
It was a part of Starbucks’ history and it was also significant in my own life story. In 2001 I worked there as a barista and some 20 years later I returned as a daily customer. As a 19-year-old it was a place where I sold coffee and dreamed of a better future and as a 39-year-old it was a place where I bought coffee and reflected on how far I’ve come in achieving in those dreams.
What it was like when I worked there
When I worked at that Starbucks in 2001 it still had the look and feel of an independent coffee shop. As you entered the store first thing you noticed was the prominent black laminate barista counter that curved around the raised barista station like the helm of a ship which gave the barista the appearance of a captain in control of something magical. The entire black expanse was broken only by these funky neon wavy lines.
There was one or two small tables at the front of the store and the rest of the seating was comprised of a stools against a counter on the side wall. I was told at the time that Howard Schultz personally oversaw the design and layout of of the store including the selection of the stools.
All of the coffee came delivered as beans in these giant sacks which were the distributed to the giant espresso machine, the drip coffee urns and retail bags which we individually packed and sealed with special Starbucks stickers.
We also did a lot of bean grinding for customers. I seem to remember the most common grind was “French press” and the most fine was Turkish grind. We had two coffee grinders including a black one that was only worth $500 and a mustard colour grinder that was worth $5,000. Or so I was told.
The quality and freshness of our products was of the greatest importance.
The baked goods were delivered fresh every morning from a regional bakery and most of the sauces and flavourings that we put in drinks were made in-store from ingredients such as cocoa powder. All of our milk, which was of the highest quality, came from Birchwood Dairy in Abbotsford.
The most important thing, of course, was the espresso shots. I believe the ideal shot took about 13 to 15 seconds to complete. Any longer would ruin the coffee so I spent a lot of time trying to get that right and it was not easy.
My background coming into Starbucks
I was hired to work there in February 2001 about a month after I lost my previous job. The managers said they liked my energy and enthusiasm and I absolutely loved the hustle and bustle of a downtown Vancouver Starbucks.
It was a far cry from my hometown of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
When I moved to Vancouver in January 2000 I described it as an escape from a bad place. Indeed, like many young people aging out of the foster care system, my formative years were defined by neglect, abuse, poverty and instability.
When I moved to the Mainland I thought I would finally be free from all the external negative forces that held me back from realizing my full potential. As soon as I got here I eventually came to realize that a lifetime of abuse, neglect and chaos left me ill-prepared to take care of myself.
In short, my biggest challenge wasn’t some abusive authority figure but my own shortcomings.
I didn’t know where I was going in life or what I would end up doing.
Still, I still thought I could break the cycle and become a successful employee. For me this meant not getting written up or fired.
My time at Starbucks in 2001
“I love working at Starbucks – learning the ropes real quick but I always forget how much syrup to put in the drinks!”My journal entry of February 27, 2001
One of the highlights of my at Starbucks, and my life to that date, was meeting the legendary singer-songwriter Bif Naked who would sometimes pick up snacks for her dog. I had initially mistook her for a teenager and once said, “you look a lot like Bif!”
“That is Bif, Nathaniel,” said my manager. “She’s one of our regulars.”
I stared at her in disbelief for a moment before I embarrassed myself a bit further by telling her how much her music meant to me. She thanked me and graciously obliged my request for an autograph which was written on the nearest piece of paper – a contest entry slip.
However, it was not always happy.
By the time I applied to Starbucks in early 2001 I had already lost three jobs, three housing placements and had also been forced to withdraw from courses at Langara College. Simply put, nothing in my life was working out and I didn’t seem to have the skills I needed to secure housing, schooling or employment.
I am so anxious as to whether or not I will keep my job. I have been fired from three sigh the past is the past – I will let that go I guess. In the present I do not feel a great deal of love or pride in myself.My journal entry of March 15, 2001
As hard as I tried I could not break old bad habits.
I was frequently late, I often gave the wrong change back to customers and I sometimes got too chatty with my co-workers and customers. Additionally, I moved so frequently in those days that I didn’t always keep my contact information updated.
I never touched alcohol or drugs and I did not follow the criminal path of some in my family but I never acquired many of the life management skills that are essential for a stable existence.
I don’t think that I have the ability to put onto paper the vulnerable, needy state of my present soul and heart. I know I need, I know not what it is and I don’t know how I feel about that. I do believe that having whatever it is that I lack would spell the end of many of my life’s problems… I feel lost, as if I have no direction and that concerns me deeply. I am worried about screwing everything up.My journal entry of April 1, 2001
I had recently aged out the foster care system and had access to any sort of mental health supports such as counselling. And even if I could access those services it didn’t help with my more immediate concerns. Talking about past trauma with a therapist seemed like an esoteric idea when I didn’t know how I was going to eat for the next few days.
However, my employers had a coffee shop to run – they were not therapists or parents. I sincerely regret the stress that I caused my managers and co-workers.
Oh my, this certainly was the day from hell! I came into work today and [my bosses at Starbucks] wrote me up for being late. The y also got mad at me about a store snapshot in which I said “I don’t drink coffee” to a customer who asked about coffee. When I opened my mouth to speak I started to cry. Not nice at all.My journal entry of May 17, 2001
I was not the best barista and they rightly cut my hours in favour of more reliable employees.
This, in turn, left me with almost no money for food so I literally lived off of what little I could discreetly forage from the unsold pastries and sandwiches that we were supposed to throw away or donate at the end of the day.
My primary concern was no longer staying employed but warding off hunger.
Oh, I have been feeling so unwell lately. Constantly nauseous, hurt, fatigued, restless, and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the weather… who knows. I jut hope I feel better tomorrow. Sort of unhappy about work.My journal entry of May 28, 2001
Most of the customers I served were civil servants, lawyers and other middle class professionals who worked in nearby offices. Most of them were nice and well-meaning people who treated me with courtesy and, at times, patience. However, I really began to perceive an enormous gulf between their socio-economic status and my own.
What was it about their formative experiences that allowed them to live a life of relative comfort and security while I struggled?
I began to see the rather grim connection between my formative life experiences and my outcomes.
I felt as though I was doomed to serve my social betters for all time but I couldn’t even do that right.
Oh well, another familiar chapter in my life has come to pass. I was fired from Starbucks yesterday. I don’t even feel that sad about it. I am really getting used to this…It was such a beautiful and sunny morning. [My managers] wanted to talk to me. They took me outside as the office was occupied by a repairman. We sat down on the courthouse steps ironically enough where I was [fired].My journal entry of June 1, 2001.
An epiphany that changed the direction of my life for the better
At this point it was clear to me that I lacked the necessary skills to survive as a full-time member of the workforce and the confidence in my ability to acquire them in a timely or healthy manner. I was done crashing and burning and really didn’t want to work in the service industry for the long-term.
More to the point, I didn’t want to serve those middle class customers – I wanted to be one of them. From a very young age I had a deep and inner desire to advance my station in life. I was not content to “go with the flow” and take a path dictated by my less than ideal life circumstances.
During my time at Starbucks I sometimes asked my customers about their careers and learned that many had gone to university in Ontario or Quebec so I figured I would do the same.
I didn’t know what middle class career I would end up in but I knew that I should first get a degree – any degree – and go from there.
University seemed like a good idea because it would give me a time out from the conventional workforce in an environment that would be more forgiving of my eccentricities. I knew that the “real world” would continue to eat me alive in my state of vulnerability but I could survive and even thrive in univesrity.
It was also the place that a 19-year-old Canadian should be if he was or aspired to be Middle Class.
Although I had attended post-secondary in the past it had never worked out for me. I did not know how to research or write essays and I became easily discouraged. When I stopped attending classes nobody really noticed because the class sizes were so large here in Vancouver.
I needed schooling but I also needed community so I set my sight on small universities outside of major urban centres. I figured I had a better chance of succeeding if I ingratiated myself in a small university community where any absence from class or social activities would be noticed by others. A place where I couldn’t fall off the radar.
I figured there was a lot of room to be an undisciplined freak at small liberal arts university so I set out to find the right one. I set my sights on universities outside of British Columbia because I wanted to live in a place that was completely removed from my past because I felt this would give me the room to become the person I wanted to be.
Additionally, I wanted to attend university in a smaller city or town far away from the distractions of the big city.
I went to the Vancouver Public Library and looked through the lateral filing cabinet that contained academic calendars for Canadian colleges and universities and quickly settled on Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
It appealed to me for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it had one of the largest gay and lesbian student populations of any university in Canada. Secondly, although it was in a smaller city it was only an hour and a half away from Toronto by bus so I had ready access to all the amenities of a large city without any of the drawbacks. Thirdly, it struck me as the socially progressive and caring community that I needed at the time.
My return to Starbucks
From 2005 until 2017 I worked as a freelance journalist for Xtra, the gay and lesbian news. Although I enjoyed this work it was underpaid and offered no security and ever-diminishing opportunities for advancement. It was a dead-end career that kept me in grinding poverty.
However, after getting braces and jaw surgery in 2017 I marshalled the courage to build a new life and returned to school for a year to study legal administration.
After graduating in 2018 I secured a job with the federal government in Downtown Vancouver. At long last I was now a bona-fide member of Canada’s Middle Class. I had arrived!
For the first time in my life I was not poor. I had a middle class salary which allowed me to get breakfast and coffee or tea from Starbucks every day before work. As it happened, the closest Starbucks to my work was the location at 811 Hornby.
Once again, this familiar place became a part of my daily routine as the Middle Class civil servant on the other side of the counter.
I have a tendency to attach great significance to physical locations associated with my past. However, I never encountered any “ghosts” in this location.
Firstly, the entire place had been completely remodelled so it looked like every other Starbucks in Vancouver. All of the original furnishings and counters had been replaced. In fact, the only trace of my time there were the espresso timer clocks.
Additionally, the vibe was completely different. Nothing in there conjured up unhappy memories of the very challenging experiences I had in that space. It was simply a coffee shop that I loved going to every morning and afternoon.
However, going to that location prompted me to reflect on how far I have come in life. Specifically, the fact that I had now realized a life dream that was conceived in that very spot so long ago.
I absolutely loved going to that location as a customer. The young staff were always courteous, helpful and prompt with their service and I am sorry that I won’t see them there anymore but I hope they have as much success in achieving their dreams as I had with mine.