Third place lesson from Borders and Starbucks locations in NYC: they still need to bring in money

The story that Borders is closing many locations (see earlier posts here, here, and here) is related to news that some Starbucks locations in New York City are going to cover up their electrical outlets to discourage people from staying too long:

Well, now some Starbucks in New York City are reportedly pulling the plug on that idea, actually covering up their electrical outlets to discourage squatters.

“Customers are asking (for it). They just purchased a latte and a pastry and there is nowhere to sit down in some of these high-volume stores,” Starbucks spokesperson Alan Hilowitz said…

It is a move that has some Starbucks regulars saying … it’s about time.

Some, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, say these two businesses provide “third places” between home and work. Thus, if the companies do things that inhibit social behavior, such as close locations, the suggestion is that they weaken the social realm as people will then be more isolated. (See a recent example of this argument here.)

But these businesses are not just providing a public good and this is one lesson that joins these two stories: they need to make enough money to keep the third places open. At Starbucks, the people who sat too long and used the free Wi-Fi ended being a nuisance to customers who wanted to pay for coffee, sit down for a short while, and then leave. At Borders, the best way to make sure the locations would stay open was to purchase more. Sure, a book at Borders might cost more but the purchase helps subsidize the cafe and the social life that may come with it.

This leads to a bigger question: would Americans be willing to pay for third places with their consumer dollars? If given the choice between a cheaper book at Amazon.com or a book at the nearby Borders, which would most people choose?

This is also a reminder that these locations are not public spaces: they are privately owned and can set their own priorities and values for the space. There still are public spaces in the United States: public parks like Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia draw attention (in this book – though it also talks about shopping malls and markets, both privately owned). Instead of lamenting the loss of Borders or Starbucks, one could fight instead for taxpayer supported public spaces that should be open to all people.

Banksy and the Simpsons: a wink to what watching the show actually means

Part of the long-term appeal of The Simpsons has been its ability to effectively play with ambiguity: it has had the ability to both mock television in general while at the same time creating a likable cast that reach resolutions that are not that different from many sitcoms. Should viewers revel in its put-downs of all aspects of society or should they enjoy the heart-warming family outcomes?

The latest stunt on this front involves the elusive British street artist Banksy:

The episode, “MoneyBART,” opens with an extended “couch gag” — the opening sequence in which the Simpson family takes its place on their sofa — created by British street artist Banksy. The artist’s dark vision gives viewers a horrifying look at how he imagines the hit show and its lucrative merchandise are made: sweatshop conditions for its animators; unsafe conditions for producers of its apparel; boxes sealed with the tongue of a disembodied dolphin head; the center holes popped out of its DVDs with the horn of a shackled, emaciated unicorn. Really…

Were the show’s creators trying to draw attention to the unethical business practices an animated series must engage in to remain competitive? Are viewers meant to draw conclusions about our own complicity as we consumers indirectly fund companies that enslave people overseas? Or was the sequence merely a stunt calculated to bring attention — negative or not — on an aging, fading series?

While an interesting opening sequence that was longer than normal and contained typical Simpsons absurdities (like the unicorn), is this really edgy or new? Any television watcher should know what is really going on with shows: they are about making money. In its early days, the Simpsons was a rebellious show, drawing in a young audience and selling a lot of merchandise. Today, it is still about making money (and perhaps sowing ground for a second successful movie). The Simpsons may now be part of American culture but that is not why the show is still on television.

Ultimately, this may simply be about gaining attention. And with the show then moving on to a typical 22 minute storyline, can the opening really be construed as some sort of powerful statement?