By Michael McDowell
Did you ever think you would live to hear Upper West Siders cry “Save Our Starbucks?”
As recently as 2017, East Villagers rallied in opposition to the opening of a Starbucks on St. Marks Place. But the East Village the Upper West Side is not.
On a stretch of Columbus Ave besieged by vacant storefronts—the former Isabella’s space is still awaiting its new tenant—several locals have started a petition to save the Starbucks at 338 Columbus Avenue, at 76th Street, which is currently scheduled to close on January 31. As of writing, the petition had more than 350 signatures — up from 25 the morning that West Side Rag broke the news of the closure.
The authors decided to petition Starbucks after employees told them of the impending closure earlier this month.
“This place, for many years, has been a legitimate neighborhood resource that fulfills all kinds of functions that are ancillary to the purveying of coffee,” said Teddy Cohn, an Upper West Side resident and one of the authors of the petition.
“This Starbucks actually happens to showcase the values and ethos that the brand pays lip service to, and presumes to espouse…it’s an unusual showcase for their brand, and it’s in their self-interest to keep it open. That’s my argument to them, in part.”
The authors argue that the coffee shop performs a number of essential community services.
Michael Schertz, an Upper West Side native and entrepreneur who co-authored the petition, described 338 Columbus as a “welcoming cultural melting pot” for customers of all kinds—a safe place for kids who attend P.S. 334 across the street who may have two working parents, for older patrons, and for homeless customers, some of whom help ensure the store is kept tidy.
In fact, Schertz said, a homeless person who frequented the location several years ago recently stopped by to thank regular customers and staff. That person not only found a job, but also an apartment, and said the warmth and support at the Starbucks at 338 Columbus played no small part in these major life changes.
“It’s just a good vibe place. Look, none of us here are naive. We know the way things work, but we don’t want to go down quietly. We want [Starbucks] to know that they did create something special here—perhaps incidentally—and they’re choosing to kill it,” Cohn added.
What about Starbucks’ reputation as a symbol of gentrification and cultural homogenization in New York City?
“I’m excruciatingly aware of the irony of my position,” Cohn said. “It’s an interesting contradiction of the reality of this place — that Starbucks, which I always saw as the enemy, provides such a unique and inclusive community space. It’s a predicament for somebody like me.”
The community value of a Starbucks in part illuminates the drastic change Manhattan has experienced.
“Starbucks stores have always been, for me, a cultural node of each neighborhood [in New York],” said Ethan Schneider, a regular and another petition author. “But this is my favorite in the entire city, by far.”
Schertz and Cohn say they are aware of the national implications a positive story could have for Starbucks, as former CEO Howard Schultz reportedly considers a run at the presidency in 2020, and the brand continues to recover from a controversial incident in Philadelphia in 2018.
So why is Starbucks folding the store?
Cohn said he spoke to a Starbucks district manager, who told him that the store is underperforming relative to others in the neighborhood, relative to rent. But one employee who did not want to be named said the closure is the result of a recent and dramatic rent increase. The building is owned by Greystone Management. A Greystone representative declined to comment for this story.
If Starbucks can’t afford Upper West Side rent, who can?
New York has long considered—and failed to implement—forms of commercial rent control. But calls for such action typically mount after the closure of a beloved local business or a mom-and-pop neighborhood fixture—not a Starbucks.
Schertz intimated that the store recently experienced a turnaround in profitability. According to Schertz, a store manager he calls the ‘Gregg Popovich of Starbucks’—a reference to the legendary coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, widely regarded as one of the greats—turned 338 Columbus Ave into the best performing store in the district, and did so within a year.
That manager has since been moved to the Starbucks at 70th Street and Broadway.
Employees said that although they do not believe their jobs to be at risk following the closure, they do support the petition, and petition cards were to be found on counters throughout the store. The employees will be reassigned to other Starbucks locations throughout the city, a change that isn’t without a certain melancholy.
“This is the best team I’ve ever worked with,” an employee said. “And that’s in the entire city,” this person added. “The customers here, it’s different.”
A Starbucks spokesperson acknowledged that while the 338 Columbus location is “special,” the decision to close the store seems to be final. “We remain committed to continuing to serve the community, offering a warm and welcoming environment for people to connect. Customers in the area will be able to visit our nearby store on 73rd & Columbus (a 3-minute walk from the store at 338 Columbus Avenue),” she added.
Cohn and Schneider said that if the store does close, as they expect, they will move their operations to other coffee shops nearby.
“When people leave the neighborhood, they still look back on this as a special promised land that they’ve never found replicated in Starbucks’ elsewhere. It’s not just anecdotal, and it’s not just laziness or self-interest. Look at the petition. So why are we doing this? I guess because an occasional good truth should be spoken, come what may,” Cohn concluded.