Really, in the grand scheme of things, it's a minor, minor point, somewhere between apocalyptic and not-very-apocalyptic-at-all: The 24-hour Starbucks in Piper's Alley, the large, busy one that hugs the corner of North Avenue and Wells Street in Old Town, is no longer a 24-hour Starbucks. Earlier this month, without ceremony, it pared back its hours, albeit slightly: It closes now at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 1 a.m. the rest of the week. It opens daily at 5 a.m. Which means, each week, it's only closed for 26 hours.
Yes, so what.
There are much bigger problems in the world, of course. Then again, tell that to Gint Aras, a Chicago native, fiction writer and English teacher at Morton College in Cicero. You get a different, far less casual reaction:
"What? Seriously? That's my 24-hour place to write. I don't go to Starbucks generally because I don't like Starbucks. So I don't go to any other Starbucks in the world. But that Starbucks is so good for writing. I tend to work late at night, and I can't do it at home with kids who wake up in the middle of the night. That Starbucks is perfect because when you're on a roll and it's four in the morning, you know you can keep going! The worst thing is to be on a creative roll then someone tells you to stop at 2 a.m.! It takes so long to bring (the concentration) back! I could go to the Billy Goat late? But they won't make me Chamomile tea."
See, sometimes, when you're working on a novel, or brainstorming a comedy sketch, or just finding the right words, it doesn't feel like there are bigger problems than simply finishing: I called Jon Favreau, former Old Town resident and speechwriter for President Barack Obama, now running a Washington communications firm, Fenway Strategies. Told that the Piper's Alley Starbucks is no longer a 24-hour Starbucks, he gasped:
"No! I love that Starbucks! That's a tragedy! During the (2008) campaign, when I was living across from St. Michael's down the street, there were seven of us on the campaign who lived in a house and to blow off steam, they played 'Rock Band.' It would get hard to think, so when I needed to write, I walked down the street to that place. I would be there all hours of the night, six or seven hours, wearing sweat pants and blending in. I wrote a lot of (Obama's) speeches there. The speech on race (delivered in Philadelphia, partly responding to comments made by Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright), I wrote that there. There was always someone in a corner playing guitar. If it hadn't been open 24 hours, I don't know what I would have done."
In other words, I said, if that Starbucks had closed at 1 a.m., American history would look much different.
"You know," he said, laughing, then pretending to sound very serious: "I had not thought of that."
The creative arts do not keep regular hours. Quietly, habitually, since becoming a 24-hour coffee shop a decade ago, the Piper's Alley Starbucks, which is centrally located, in the same building as Second City, within hailing distance of several prominent Chicago entertainment institutions (Zanies Comedy Club, A Red Orchid Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company) and a number of artist's lofts, had become the neighborhood's go-to friend, anonymous, slightly nutty, reliably available.
"Why did they have to do this? I use that all the time! I don't always want to discuss a show or something over whiskey at the Ale House (across from Starbucks on North Avenue), where a lot of (artists) go," said Dado, a Red Orchid ensemble member and director who most recently conducted early-morning meetings at the Piper's Alley Starbucks while working on the company's production of "Simpatico" with actors Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen. "Sometimes we use actors who aren't 21, it's the middle of the night and I need to power through something. It's close to the theater, and I can't do concentrated work in a bar. It's not helpful to close for a few hours! It was good the way it was. What do I do now — work in my car?"
Indeed, I worked on a sizable chunk of this column while seated in a window seat there, writing on a laptop, moving along nicely until — at 1 a.m., the baristas asked everyone, very politely, to please get the heck out.
Snapped my rhythm.
Still, I am of two minds: Perhaps we, artists, writers, students, coffee drinkers, have become overly entitled in our use of certain spaces, confusing the merely comfortable with second living rooms. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Chicago just received its first shipping-container Starbucks — a funky, modular structure in Edgewater, at the corner of Broadway and Devon Avenue, made out of recycled shipping containers and offering no place to work, only takeout. ( Perhaps it's no coincidence Starbucks Gossip, an all-Starbucks-culture blog started 9 years ago by Evanston's Jim Romenesko, better known as founder of a popular, eponymous media blog, went on semi-official hiatus recently: "Their wi-fi is terrible," Romenesko said. "Plus, to be a successful blogger, you have to feel passionate about what you're blogging about.")
The love is ending.
Andrew Newton, who works at the Second City box office and uses the Piper's Alley Starbucks to toil on screenplays and comedy sketches with friends (though generally in the daytime now), said: "It seems as if the list of 24-hour places where you can work, the list that I keep inside my head, has been dwindling."
On the other hand, with its fireplace, poufy leather chairs and communal tables for spreading out, the Piper's Alley Starbucks encouraged staying in one place all night long, becoming a fine example of how a generic, ubiquitous chain store can evolve into an unofficial, arts-minded gathering spot: "If it is 2 a.m., and I need to have a talk with an actor or a designer, I can get it done in a coffee shop like this, rather than a small family-owned one where people know you," Dado said. "There is anonymity that a corporate Starbucks can offer."
Indeed, Melody Overton, the Seattle lawyer who operates the popular fan blog StarbucksMelody, told me Starbucks stores have remarkable assimilation qualities, taking on "characteristics of the neighborhood they are in. If it's a strong gay neighborhood, or strong artistic neighborhood, the stores take on those characteristics." Which, frankly, if you have never been to Piper's Alley Starbucks late at night, should bring to mind "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." But nothing could be more wrong: Several artists told me that they can't work there because it's too "frenetic," while others mentioned that its bustle provides ideal distraction. "You can't leave stuff unattended and go to the bathroom, which forces you to stay focused on your writing," said Brian Wilson, a University of Chicago PhD candidate, working on his dissertation in archaeology.
What they are describing is a "third place," those creative, social, well-trodden spaces that exist between work and home; the phrase, often employed by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, was popularized in the late 1980s by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. A classic third place generally works best with the right mix of regulars, and the Piper's Alley Starbucks draws writers, actors, directors, painters, police officers, college students, insomniac chess players, the homeless and the occasional '60s wash-out, holdovers from Old Town's distant bohemian past. Being only a few doors away from the condo apartments where Zanies puts up its out-of-town stand-ups, it draws a lot of funny people; being alongside Second City (which, in its guide for new students, mentions the convenience of a Starbucks job while studying at its conservatory), it also brings in comedy students, sketch writers, performers. When Katie Tyner, Second City's nighttime manager (and non-Second City performer), moved to Chicago from Oklahoma, her plan was to work at the Starbucks nearest to Second City, meet the Second City staff, then get a job; that's exactly what happened.
Ever Mainard, a Chicago comedian who recently moved to Los Angeles, worked overnight shifts there on and off for seven years: "It was like this weird 'Cheers'-ish, 'Twilight Zone' place, with transients, financial brokers who needed to talk to overseas clients, people who would paint, touring casts from Second City, artists who would come over from the Thomas Masters Gallery to think — artists being kind of night owls."
Artists still go there; you see them sprinkled in among students, who dominate. There are still writers too. And during business hours, there seem to be few attempts at moving anyone or asking anyone to leave. But the mix is changing, baristas who work there told me — the night owls, for instance, who plow through the sunrise and often would still be there when the first early morning commuters arrive, have been vanquished.
Starbucks' media relations told me the reason for the change came "after careful consideration" and had to do with a variety of factors, including customer traffic and the much less specific (though definitely ironic) "changing needs of the community." So, now the chairs go up on tables as early as 11 p.m. Even the big poufy leather ones get turned upside down, chair after chair, until, at closing, there's nowhere left to go.