In How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gates Gill, son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, takes a long fall from grace into a green apron. Already in his 60s, Gill is diagnosed with a brain tumor, loses his job as an advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson, and ruins his marriage with an affair, gaining a newborn son in the process. Destitute and depressed, Gill's luck changes when he accidentally walks into a Starbucks career fair and takes a job as a barista. When the manager assigns him to 93rd and Broadway, a store staffed mostly by African-Americans in their 20s, Gill must leave his privileged past behind and learn how to operate a cash register and call out drink orders, among other things he never really imagined himself having to do. In the process, he achieves a sense of contentedness that eluded him in his former life of high-status entitlement.
Gill's riches-to-rags-to-spiritual-riches story is dramatic raw material. How many other sons of privilege do you know who lost everything and became baristas at Starbucks? The premise of his story was so compelling that Universal Pictures made a six-figure acquisition of How Starbucks Saved My Life more than a year ago, before the book was even written, based on a proposal alone. (Tom Hanks is slated to star, Gus Van Sant will direct.)
Speaking via cellphone from New York, Gill identifies the real substance of his story with humor and verve. "The big lesson I get out of it ... was just taking a risk by putting myself into a whole new life. I never expected to wear an apron or black cap and call out 'venti latte!' But it was physically rejuvenating, and it was redemptive; it made me feel better about myself and about other people. I think all of us miss spontaneous opportunities in life because we're all focused on trying to manipulate everybody and control everything."
Asked how he intended to influence readers with his book, Gill cites a drive to inspire others with his own deeply felt revelations about quality of life and the courage to take risks.
"I just want people to read it and, no matter what age they are, think it's worth leaping into a new life rather than settling with something they're not happy with," he says. "I mean, I don't want to sound like some half-assed expert. All I did was take a job as a barista. But it's a shame to waste our lives as serious people pretending to control our lives."
The feel-good premise of his story is a Starbucks publicist's wet dream, which, of course, makes you wonder whether the coffee giant had a say (or a financial role) in the book.
Gill, who still works as a barista, dismisses any suspicions of a Faustian bargain between author and corporation. "I told Starbucks I was working on a book, but I never met anyone from corporate," he says. "I told my manager and they told other people. What I heard back was that Starbucks supported every partner effort, so they were relaxed about it. They never asked to see a single word."
Regardless, Gill often describes the job duties and perks of a barista with the kind of painstakingly positioned rhetorical fervor reserved for marketing brochures and hiring fairs, neglecting a thorough exploration of his own personal transformation. He may be exercising his own free will, but Gill still paints an absurdly utopian portrait of Starbucks in this book. How Starbucks Saved My Life suffers from an overemphasis on details like Starbucks' extension of health benefits to part-time employees, the company's democratic work policies, and the challenge of balancing a register at the end of a shift.
Occasionally, though, Gill does deliver touching moments of self-discovery and humility. "I had been programmed at J. Walter Thompson to be excited by promotions," Gill writes. "There was always a raise, praise in a congratulatory memo, a celebratory dinner at a fancy restaurant, and increased prestige with my peers. But then I realized with a powerful jolt that I was no longer in that world where such things really meant something. 'You're cleaning bathrooms, for God's sake!' I thought, laughing at myself."
However, Gill too often strays from substantial epiphanies into tangential information about, say, Starbucks' coffee selection process. The revelations and newfound perspective that you'd expect to read — and that he conveys in interviews — never really hit home in the book.
This is Gill's first book, and his inexperience at storytelling shows. How Starbucks Saved My Life reads more like a rough stream-of-consciousness journal than an expertly crafted memoir. While his story holds a lot of potential for enlightening insights, a fascinating premise doesn't necessarily produce an effective book. Consequently, the responsibility for communicating the full weight of Gill's story will be left to Hollywood.