Wednesday, March 24, 2010

55. How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill

I think I first heard about How Starbucks Saved My Life when I heard about the movie adaptation that's in the works. Tom Hanks is slated to star, and I love Tom Hanks. So I figured that I would read it for the project, but it seemed silly to count this as one of my movie adaptations since I don't even know when the movie will be released (it's still listed as "In Development" on So I added it to the biography tally (a category that I know I wouldn't have trouble finding books for).

In his fifties, Michael Gates Gill had it all: a big house in the suburbs, a loving family and a top job at an ad agency with a six-figure salary. By the time he turned sixty, he had lost everything except his Ivy League education and his sense of entitlement. First, he was downsized at work. Next, an affair ended his twenty-year marriage. Then, he was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor, prognosis undetermined. Around the same time, his girlfriend gave birth to a son. Gill had no money, no health insurance, and no prospects.

One day as Gill sat in a Manhattan Starbucks with his last affordable luxury, a latte, brooding about his misfortune and quickly dwindling list of options, a 28-year-old Starbucks manager named Crystal Thompson approached him, half joking, to offer him a job. With nothing to lose, he took it, and went from drinking coffee in a Brooks Brothers suit to serving it in a green uniform. For the first time in his life, Gill was a minority -- the only older white guy working with a team of young African-Americans. He was forced to acknowledge his ingrained prejudices and admit to himself that, far from being beneath him, his new job was hard. And his younger coworkers, despite having half the education and twice the personal difficulties he'd ever faced, were running circles around him.

The other baristas treated Gill with respect and kindness despite his differences, and he began to feel a new emotion: gratitude. Crossing over the Starbucks bar was the beginning of a dramatic transformation that cracked his world wide open. When all of his defenses and the armor of entitlement had been stripped away, a humbler, happier and gentler man remained. One that everyone, especially Michael's kids, liked a lot better.

The backdrop to Gill's story is a nearly universal cultural phenomenon: the Starbucks experience. In How Starbucks Saved My Life, we step behind the counter of one of the world's best-known companies and discover how it all really works, who the baristas are and what they love (and hate) about their jobs. Inside Starbucks, as Crystal and Mike's friendship grows, we see what wonders can happen when we reach out across race, class, and age divisions to help a fellow human being.

Plot summary lifted from the back cover, per usual. 

I enjoyed reading this book so much! I picked it up during a lazy Sunday morning, thinking I would start it and then watch some TV, and I read it straight through until the end. I couldn't put it down, which is kind of unusual for autobiographies. I enjoy the genre, but they don't always grab you like that. This is partly due to Gill's writing skills; he grew up in a famous New York literary family and started his 25-year career at JWT as a copywriter. It shows. Although the book is mainly about his first year working at Starbucks and how it changed -- sorry, saved his life, he cuts back and forth between the present and the past. Gill has lived what most would call a charmed life, and the stories from his childhood to adulthood are fascinating. For example, a friend from the secret society Skull and Bones set up his job interview at JWT. Maybe that's common in some circles, but to me that is crazy. 

Side note: OMG! My friend Jeff and I heart the movie The Skulls with Joshua Jackson; our favorite quote is "If it's secret and elite, it can't be good." Well, apparently it was good to Mr. Gill!

I think this book especially appealed to me because I could relate to both of Gill's professional lives -- I work in the advertising industry, so reading about his advertising career was interesting, and I worked at a Caribou Coffee for over a year, so the insider info on Starbucks was interesting, too. By the way, this quote kills me:

"Almost all ad clients took about ten minutes to decide they knew better than you."

I have a tiny chip on my shoulder after reading about some of the Starbucks stuff. For example, Gill and his coworkers got scheduled breaks. Not me! I think it may have been in the rules at Caribou, but it wasn't enforced. Also, Gill didn't have to count down his cash drawer at the start and end of each shift -- they had a money weighing machine! What the what? I spent hours of my life counting down those drawers, and Starbucks has money weighing machines? Ugh. Okay, I'll get over it. Eventually.

I highly recommend this book. It's a quick read with an incredibly likeable narrator. The journey that Gill goes through to adjust to this new chapter in his life and the lessons that he learns make for a valuable yet entertaining read.

1 comment:

Mollie said...

I totally agree with your "what the what?" whenever I hear about things that I hated doing that no one has to do anymore. Sounds like a great book though!