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— The Ocean Beach Starbucks on Newport Avenue, just west of Bacon Street, opened on September 11. Not September 11, 2007, but the September 11, in 2001. Doubtless, many in Ocean Beach don't consider that fact a coincidence but rather a cosmic commentary on the Seattle-based coffee giant's practice of opening stores near successful independent coffeehouses. In Ocean Beach's case, the successful café was Jungle Java. Its 51-year-old owner, Beth Turner, remembers that day. "They opened up, then they closed two hours later when the corporate edict came down that all Starbucks would close that day."

Jungle Java occupies a small lot 100 yards from the beach on the south side of Newport Avenue. There's no indoor seating. Patrons sit under a white shade tent such as you might see at a wedding. Turner has decorated the area under the tent with potted tropical plants, ferns, and cacti, most of which are for sale. Fourteen years ago, Turner was a computer programmer when she got the idea to take the undeveloped street-front lot and make a combination coffeehouse/nursery out of it. "I don't want to tell you this part," she says chuckling. "I was drinking across the street at the Sunshine Company up on their upper deck looking down over this lot. It wasn't being used for anything, and there was a bunch of junk thrown in here. I thought, 'Somebody should do something with that' and then kind of forgot about it for a while. Then I thought, 'I wish we had an outdoor coffee shop.' And then I kind of forgot about that for a while. Then it was 'I wish there was a place that I could go buy some plants and fix up my patio.' Then all the ideas kind of came together, and I thought, 'I could maybe do something like that in the empty space.' "

Turner contacted the owner of the lot about using it as an outdoor coffeehouse-cum-nursery. He agreed, she opened Jungle Java, and a few years later she bought the land, a key to Jungle Java's survival because "it has kept my rent fixed."

Turner continues, "When I opened, there were only two other coffee shops in town, and they were both independent and locally owned. I was the only one down here on this end of Newport."

Before the Starbucks opened up six years ago, word spread through Ocean Beach of the company's plans. A grassroots opposition movement popped up. "No Starbucks in O.B." yard signs and bumper stickers abounded. Rallies against Starbucks drew hundreds. The town planning board sent a letter of opposition to the Starbucks corporation. All to no avail. Turner remembers those days. "It was really tough for me to figure out how to play that," she recalls, "because I didn't want to sound like sour grapes and I didn't want to sound like I was afraid. At that time there were a bunch of vacant storefronts, and the storefront that Starbucks occupied had been closed for a couple of years, and it was attracting a lot of vagrants. So I was glad to see something going in there. I kind of took the position that as a citizen of this community -- because I grew up here, and I have a house here, and this is my town -- I don't really want the feel of the community to change. But as a business owner, I appreciate the fact that a full Newport Avenue is good for everybody."

Before Starbucks came to town, Turner says Jungle Java always had a 5 percent surge in business during summer. "But since Starbucks opened, I haven't gotten that increase in the tourist season."

But Turner says the hubbub over Starbucks coming to Ocean Beach in the first place has brought her a "slight increase in local business through the rest of the year," which has offset the loss of summer tourist business. "It made people a little more aware, and a lot of people are making more conscious choices."

It's not lower prices they're choosing. A 16-ounce latte costs $3.25 at Starbucks and Jungle Java. Turner believes the two stores attract "different clientele. I think that people that go to Starbucks are kind of going along with the crowd, and the people that come here appreciate, I think, a little bit more the uniqueness."

John Husler, co-owner of Lestat's coffeehouse, one shop from the corner of Adams Avenue and Felton in Normal Heights, echoes Turner's comment about drawing a clientele different from Starbucks. "We're really not competing for the same customer," he says. "Starbucks customers are people who like brand recognition. They like that standardized, sort of corporate atmosphere. They know what they're going to get when they walk into Starbucks, and that's comforting to them. Our customers are just the opposite. They're alternative-thinking, freedom-based people who are looking for something interesting and noncorporate. They come here for what used to be called that coffeehouse atmosphere created by freethinking people."

Husler, 44, and his business partner, James Gerkowski, opened Lestat's -- named after a character in Anne Rice's vampire novels -- ten and a half years ago. It's a small café with eclectic, comfy furniture. At one end of the room is a stage not much bigger than the top of a Ping-Pong table. Acts perform on that stage nightly. A 16-ounce latte costs $3.25, same as at Starbucks. Asked how he's survived the Starbucks era, Husler laughs. "Well, I don't know if I can say we've survived the Starbucks era, because they only just opened up in June."

The new Starbucks sits kitty-corner from Lestat's. Asked if he thinks Starbucks opened across the street to try to siphon business from Lestat's, Husler answers, "Oh, I know they did. And I understand that it's business. They see a spot where there's a successful coffee shop, and they know that there are people buying coffee at that corner. So they don't need to do any research. It saves them time and money. That's business, and I understand that. But I get a little resentful when I think of the amount of time and effort I've put into this community -- I mean, I've nearly gotten into fights on the street outside my shop because I was trying to keep guys from selling drugs in front of my store. The neighborhood has improved partly because of our efforts, and now Starbucks is swooping in to capitalize on that."

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cafehunt March 16, 2008 @ 9:37 a.m.

Check out http://www.cafehunt.com for a list of independent coffee shops. Don't forget to contribute independent coffee shops around you there.

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