I was re-watching You’ve Got Mail (1998) the other night and noticed how often coffee, specifically Starbucks coffee, is mentioned and shown in the movie. The romantic comedy took place in the Upper West side of New York City in 1998. Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan) owns an independent children’s bookstore and Joe Fox (played by Tom Hanks) is a bigshot salesman opening a mega bookstore just around the corner. The two meet in an anonymous America Online chatroom and slowly fall in love without realizing that they are actually business competitors.
Coffee doesn’t play an explicit role in the story, but it does act as an important symbol of identity. At around the 20-minute mark, there is a scene of Kathleen ordering a coffee at Starbucks while Joe is talking via voice-over about the swift and powerful uprising of specialty coffees in America. Joe notes how, “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy a cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etcetera. So, people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on Earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self.” Clearly, Joe has a tiff with the rise of specialty coffees, yet we see later that in his new big-box mega-bookstore “Fox Books,” he uses the appeal of the espresso bean and a good discount to bait the readers of the Upper West side into abandoning their beloved independent bookstores and shopping commercially.
This made me wonder whether it’s the specialty coffee itself that Joe seems to disagree with or what the coffee represents. So many people search for themselves in their coffee order. Are you a decaf person? Or do you always take your coffee iced? Why choose almond milk over soy milk? Are you actually lactose-intolerant? What even is the difference between non-fat, and skim? Crafting the perfect, personalized coffee becomes the equivalent of an Instagram bio. All you have to do when you introduce yourself to a new person is tell them that you take your coffee a certain way and they’ll know you’re a sagittarius! Joe’s conflict with Starbucks coffee is the illusion of a defined sense of self it provides. Ironically, he is frustrated with the mind-games and manipulation that many big retailers (including his own bookstore) use to lure in and keep clients.
The battle between commercial and independent retailers acts like a telescope for the viewer to look into the deeper issue being explored. That of choice and whether people know themselves well enough to make decisions for themselves. In relation to coffee, we have Starbucks as the commercial coffee establishment and therefore linked to Joe Fox, making Kathleen Kelly associated with traditional brew-at-home American coffee. Another instance of irony, however, is that Kathleen herself consumes a lot of Starbucks coffee. With one of her defining character traits being that she wants to preserve the local vendors of the Upper Westside, you'd think that that would include where she purchases coffee. Apparently, even she is drawn to the irresistible allure of being able to pretend that you have your life together by picking up a grande caramel macchiato before hitting the work grind.
I found the play between coffee, choice, and identity incredibly interesting, considering the film is a love story. Love and relationships are all about choice, but the question of whether Kathleen and Joe know each other enough for a relationship remains apparent throughout the movie. When I saw You’ve Got Mail for the very first time, I was immediately taken aback by the emphasis on choice and the decision that the film drives forward. Beginning with Joe Fox’s voice over and spilling into the end of the film when, unsurprisingly, Kathleen chooses to close her bookstore in face of the impossible competition Fox Books poses for her. From a cup of coffee to a life-changing decision, things sure do add up!
[bf_image id="qeyf50-fkfv0o-eid20o"] While Starbucks and other specialty coffee realtors remain staples in most people's lives, we are entering the third wave of coffee consumption. This means that there is more of a focus on quality, craft, connection and sustainability; things that most coffee consumers feel they can experience more authentically in a small, local coffee shop environment. Despite many coffee shops, including Starbucks, closing their doors due to the pandemic, our world’s caffeine addiction doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Nor does our lifelong quest for a sense of self — and the perfectly brewed cup of coffee.