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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else » User review

A Warm Beverage -- Subtle, Sweet, If A Bit Frothy

  • Jan 18, 2011

Michael Gates Gill’s memoir might easily be subtitled "A Riches to (Cleaning) Rags Story" in which a patrician advertising executive tumbles from grace and finds himself needing a job – any job – with health insurance and a chance to be gainfully occupied. Through serendipity, he accepts a job at Starbucks and starts the long climb to regaining self-respect. With an extra shot.

Gill was the son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill and was brought up in affluence in the New York social circle. The opulence did not quite overcome his loneliness for his absent parents and his lifelong need for their approval. He is plagued by being not quite enough by one standard or another.

Gill gets a plum corporate job with the help of an acquaintance from Skull & Bones, Yale’s secret society. From there, he rises up the hierarchy for 25 years through single-minded devotion to his career at the expense of his family and his dignity … and a little coattail riding. (Hey, could have been worse. This same career launch could make you President.)

Laid-off in his early 50’s, Gill makes a failed attempt at reemployment, destroys his marriage, uses up his savings, is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and finds himself in a Starbucks with the last of his dignity with the lint in the pocket of his Brooks Brothers suit. The young, female, African-American manager offers him a job. Having no other prospects, he accepts and is grateful to have a chance to show that he has any value at all in the world.

As a "Partner" in a green apron and lone white, older male employee, he scrubs the bathroom, stocks shelves, mops floors, and faces running the much-feared cash register. Caffeine is an eye-opener as Gill learns to let go of his past and appreciate the value of camaraderie, respect, and the dignity of engagement in his life and others’.

The pace of the book is leisurely with many side trips into the past. Gill’s family rubbed elbows with the upper crust of the day and he tells their stories matter-of-factly. After nuggets about Hemingway, James Thurber, and Jackie O, one wouldn’t be surprised to read, "While having dinner with my Dad, the Pope leaned over and said…" Still, the namedropping has a purpose in underscoring both the grandeur of his beginnings and the recognition that the past is, well, past. Gill’s much younger coworkers greet the story of meeting Frank Sinatra with blank stares, but are excited to learn that Gill’s daughter is making a movie with 50 Cent, of whom Gill knows only by name.

Some have questioned the book’s veracity or found it cloying or rambling or both. Keep in mind that a memoir has to contain the truth but it doesn’t have to be an encyclopedia of all the truth. While Gill skips over some details that would seem to be relevant (his first marriage, his failure to finish college, etc.), he is unflinchingly forthright about his weaknesses. His fears, big and small, echo true. So does his joy at finding a place where, unlikely as it seems, he discovers his true passion and learns to fit in.

What’s missing for me, much like a macchiato without milk froth, is an indication of the next step of growth. He learned the joy and satisfaction of tangible work and the importance of attitude and effort. He extols Starbucks and their positive corporate values to the point where the majority of his new life is working at the shop and then returning to his sparsely furnished attic apartment. Even if he overcame his personal snobbery to get to this conclusion, isn’t being the vassal of a coffee chain a lot like misplaced devotion to an advertising agency? Where does he truly make amends with his children, with his ex-wife, with his ex-girlfriend? When does he decide to volunteer at a soup chicken or use his second helping of fame to do some good for someone beyond his own soul or a cheery word to a Starbucks Guest? He wrote complimentary notes to his co-workers but does he sit on a bench in Central Park and enjoy the sunshine?

This is a charming book that reads quickly.  Is an ad man always an ad man or can someone really change?  I don't know, but the book gives one hope that one can build one's own island of happiness through insight, willingness to take a risk, and - perhaps - desperation.

Michael Gates Gill earned his redemption one latte at a time and he deserves the happiness that it has brought him. Now he needs to go one step farther. He learned that ‘up’ was not a direction that brought satisfaction; let’s hope that he takes his hard-won personal victory and moves it the nest step ‘out’ into the world.

A Warm Beverage -- Subtle, Sweet, If A Bit Frothy A Warm Beverage -- Subtle, Sweet, If A Bit Frothy

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January 27, 2011
Excellent summary and review! I, too, was a barista during the summers of my high school and college careers, and I have certainly met older partners who seemed to be very content in that environment. And, interestingly enough, after the first few months post-graduation of unsuccessful job-hunting, I applied to be a barista again, but this time out of desperation. However, I, myself, had a serendipitous moment, and am now on the Lunch team, ^_^ . Thanks for the review!
January 19, 2011
Wow...great review! I've been a barista out of desperation myself from time to time in the past, so it's nice to know that it can teach someone that was born with the proverbial spoon in their mouth a tremendous life lesson. I agree with the points that you raised and would've been thinking the same thing. Thanks :)
January 19, 2011
Really great review, and those are some very interesting questions that you posed. Maybe he'll address that in a second book? Thanks so much for sharing! :)
More How Starbucks Saved My Life: A... reviews
review by . September 04, 2008
I wanted to like this book, I really did. The premise was great - a man who's had everything pretty much handed to him most of his life loses his job and has to learn the value of hard labor. Along the way he learns that he has been prejudiced and unfair in his perceptions of others.    As great as the premise was, the resulting book was just slightly short of terrible. Gill does not have a talent for writing (to say the least) and the whole memoir sounds like a long conversation. …
review by . October 13, 2007
I really enjoyed this book. I will not bother detailing it as many others have already done it. Suffice it to say that this book combined many things that I love. Lots of talk about coffee and my favorite spot Starbucks, a coming of age story, insights and a candid memoir.    The writing is great and entertaining - very engaging. I felt myself rooting for this man and his new life. This book gives all of us options and hope.    The only negative comment I …
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About this book


The son ofNew Yorkerwriter Brendan Gill grew up meeting the likes of Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway. A Yale education led to a job at prestigious J. Walter Thompson Advertising. But at 63, the younger Gill's sweet life has gone sour. Long fired from JWT, his own business is collapsing and an ill-advised affair has resulted in a new son and a divorce. At this low point, and in need of health insurance for a just diagnosed brain tumor, Gill fills out an application for Starbucks and is assigned to the store on 93rd and Broadway in New York City, staffed primarily by African-Americans. Working as a barista, Gill, who is white, gets an education in race relations and the life of a working class Joe . Gill certainly has a story to tell, but his narrative is flooded with saccharine flashbacks, when it could have detailed how his very different, much younger colleagues, especially his endearing 28-year-old manager, Crystal Thompson, came to accept him. The book reads too much like an employee handbook, as Gill details his duties or explains how the company chooses its coffee. Gill's devotion to the superchain has obviously changed his life for the better, but that same devotion makes for a repetitive, unsatisfying read. Photos not seen byPW.(Sept.)
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ISBN-10: 1592402860
ISBN-13: 978-1592402861
Author: Michael Gates Gill
Publisher: Gotham

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