Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life

Gotham Books, 2007 – Softcover $14 – Kindle or Nook Version $11.99

Life does not always allow us to read certain books when we want to read them. I had heard about "How Starbucks Saved My Life" when it was first published in 2007, but had forgotten about it until I saw it again recently at Horizon Books in Traverse City.

Having grown weary of business-related books that reveal a new magical concept and spend the remaining chapters reinforcing their supposed revelations, something told me this book would be different.

Author Michael Gates Gill was born into wealth. He graduated from Yale and immediately got a job through his network of college friends with the renowned advertising firm J. Walter Thompson.

Professionally accomplished, with a large mansion and six-figure salary, he seems to have it all…until his world comes crashing down and he finds himself in his 50s unemployed, divorced, and diagnosed with a brain tumor.

After his downfall, Mike goes to a Starbucks coffee shop and pretends to have an important meeting with someone who will never arrive. On a whim, the store's manager approaches and asks him if he is interested in working there. The manager is a young African American woman with whom Mike has little in common.

Desperate and broke, he takes the job, learning quickly how his past doesn't matter to his new boss or co-workers. The jolting realization he is on equal footing with people he used to dismiss as uneducated or inferior forms the backbone of the book.

"How Starbucks Saved My Life" is an entertaining first-person narrative that goes back and forth between Mike's daily struggles to learn and keep his job as a coffee barista and flashbacks to the baggage of his upbringing, his corporate life, and his deep-rooted biases. The book's one drawback is the author's habit of interrupting the flow of pivotal present tense situations with elongated and sometimes wordy flashbacks.

So how does Starbucks play into this? Like them or not, Starbucks provides well-honed procedures and infrastructure that allows people to perform at a very high level, regardless of age or experience. Mike's well-heeled background matters little when it comes time to clean the restrooms or deal with a long line of customers.

Over time, the younger employees and Mike become close. Mike finds that working at Starbucks is a great equalizer. Once this happens, Mike realizes something else: that he is as happy as he has ever been.

Working as a team with defined daily tasks and goals, Mike and his team achieve a tremendous level of camaraderie and job satisfaction. In the end Mike is surprised when his grown children come to visit him at Starbucks, are proud of his new line of work, his acceptance of others, and how he's changed himself in ways they never could have imagined.

"How Starbucks Saved My Life" is really about a courageous man who is forced to reinvent and humble himself to simply make a living. The real story here is Mike's ability to excel at being a Starbucks barista while likewise achieving professional happiness that he never had as a high-level advertising executive. In its slim 260 pages, it is a highly entertaining weekend read that might just change your life…like it changed Mike's.

Chris Wendel is a consultant and lender with Northern Initiative in Traverse City. Northern Initiatives is a private, non-profit community development corporation that provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, technical assistance, and new markets.