Mon10202014

Books

Author's riches-to-rags tale offers redemption via Starbucks

Sometimes a book is successful not because it’s exceptionally well written, but because it strikes a nerve with a segment of the population. Such is the case with Michael Gates Gill’s “How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else” (Gotham, 2007).

Although not a best-seller, the book attracted its share of publicity because the author addressed a serious problem in America – the difficulty that millions of older Americans have in finding a job.

Gill’s life story turns the classic rags-to-riches tale upside down. Born and raised in an affluent family, Gill attended Yale University and accepted a prestigious job in advertising shortly after earning his diploma. But at the ripe old age of 53, he got another piece of paper – a pink slip from the J. Walter Thompson Co., almost certainly because of his age.

More bad news followed, in the form of a brain tumor that left his hearing impaired and a divorce following his affair with a younger woman that left him with a fifth child.

What’s a guy to do? In Gill’s case, he accepted a job offer from a young African-American manager named Crystal at a Starbucks in New York. He worked his way up from cleaning toilets to running the cash register.

Although “How Starbucks Saved My Life” is a short, rather simple book, some readers will no doubt enjoy the author’s encounters with big names. The son of a well-known publisher in New York, Gill was privileged to meet a slew of famous people as a young man. The name-dropping will amuse – I still chuckle when I think of his retelling of his infamous meeting with Queen Elizabeth.

Some of the incidents recounted in the book feel a bit forced, as if the author exaggerates their seriousness to craft a more dramatic story. Was Gill really in danger of being killed by a slightly deranged customer late one night, only to be saved by the intervention of a large colleague? We will never know for sure.

The book’s biggest flaw, however, is that it reads like a long love poem to Starbucks. While I’m quite sure that Starbucks is a top-notch employer that has boosted the self-esteem of Gill and countless baristas like him, the “life-saving” qualities attributed to the coffee giant are a bit overstated.

Despite its shortcomings, I suspect that most readers would enjoy “How Starbucks Saved My Life.” Given the sluggish economy over the past few years, the story rings familiar. Many of us know or know of an older person who has had a difficult time finding a job, despite a strong résumé, a high motivation to work and an effort to keep his or her skills current.

Few programs today at either the federal or state level are committed to helping older workers find employment. With the aging baby-boomer generation, the problem is poised to worsen. While Gill offers no solutions to the problem, he does provide a ray of hope to those in the same boat.

Most book clubs would enjoy reading “How Starbucks Saved My Life.” It’s refreshing to breeze through a quick read every once in a while, especially in the summer.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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