The Guardian's John Harris looks at the battle taking place in the Devon town of Totnes, a kind of counterculture/hippie haven on the "English Riviera," where residents are furious at the plan to open an outlet of the Costa Coffee chain. Harris paints a picture of Totnes as the kind of place that would be pretty nice to live in: they issue their own currency that only works with local businesses, have a record store that puts the best music shops in Manhattan to shame, and have dozens of nice coffee shops where skilled baristas ply their trade -- like Portland, OR crossed with an English seaside village.
For Harris (and the Totnes residents with whom he speaks), the fight to keep Costa out of town is a microcosm for the fight against global capitalism, and the triumph of profits and shareholder value over local community and mutual aid.
Totnes's local economy looks to be in reasonable health, which is surely down to the fact that it is about as far from being what we now call a "clone town" as could be imagined. The local record shop, Drift, is mind-bogglingly great: the kind of place that you'd think was amazing if you found it in New York. The quality and diversity of restaurants is amazing. Most pertinently, the town has 42 independently run outlets that serve coffee, and – so far – not a single branch of any of the big caffeine-selling multiples.
Now, though, Costa – whose most visible slogan remains "Saving the world from mediocre coffee" – is on its way, as part of programme of expansion that will look either worryingly aggressive or admirably ambitious, depending on your point of view. Certainly, it seems to be bucking the prevailing trend of our flatlining economy, opening scores of new outlets while independent coffee shops are truly feeling the pinch.
A fully owned subsidiary of the food and hospitality conglomerate Whitbread, it currently operates 1,400 British outlets, and recently announced plans for 350 more. Thanks also to a snowballing presence in petrol stations, pubs and motorway services, its logo is becoming inescapable, which is exactly the point: the chief executive, Andy Harrison, has talked about increasing the number of branches to 2,000, and thus making them ubiquitous. "People really don't want to walk very far for a coffee," he has said. "We can have them a couple of hundred yards apart on a really busy high street, then another at a retail park and another at the station."
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.