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Brewing a Tempest In a Coffee Cup

A Starbucks shop in Cambridge, Mass., is target of protesters who don't want to swallow rules of capitalism.

There's a proud history of throwing the rascals out in this oh-so-liberal bastion near Boston.

George Washington began his rout of the British here in 1775. Nearly two centuries later, in 1966, an antiwar mob sent Defense Secretary Robert McNamara scurrying to safety through Harvard University's underground tunnels. He didn't come back for 29 years.

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Now, residents have a new target for expulsion: the coffee-slinging capitalists at Starbucks.

To get the Seattle-based chain to leave town, protesters have been picketing its new store here with signs that read: "Starbucks Has No Local Flavor" or "Don't Let Corporate Greed Destroy Our Neighborhood. Boycott Starbucks."

To picketers in Cambridge's Central Square, and to several other communities trying to buck the Starbucks trend, the store is a symbol of yuppie-driven sameness spreading across America - of the force that would turn all shops and restaurants into a vanilla-flavored mall.

Yet even these venerable activists may not be able stop the change - especially when it comes as a socially responsible company that simply serves up cups of java.

Still, the protesters persist. "This is a very odd area - and we like it that way," says picketer Aldo Tanbellini. He's a neighborhood icon. Warmed by a fluorescent orange scarf, he strolls the streets, inviting neighbors to poetry readings. "All the creativity in Boston is in these three blocks," he says of the mixed-income neighborhood that's home to Cheapo Records, several burrito bars, and other one-of-a-kind shops. "Now that Starbucks is here, that's all going to change."

Indeed, because of a city effort to spruce up the area, national chains such as The Gap will be coming soon. But this only adds to some residents' concerns.

"It's part of the growing tension in the world between the mass-market economy and people's desire to retain self-control and some local culture," says Edward McMahon, an Arlington, Va., lawyer who has helped communities evict or keep out chains such as McDonald's and Wal-Mart.

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COMMUNITIES elsewhere have resisted the growing ubiquity of Starbucks. In Katonah, N.Y. - home of a Lake Wobegon-like hardware store and exclusive estates - residents balked at a planned Starbucks. They kept the chain out with a tough zoning law. A similar effort is going on now in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

But to heap scorn on Starbucks, Mr. McMahon says, is ridiculous. "Starbucks is one of the most community-friendly corporations in America," he says.

Indeed, the Central Square Starbucks gives its leftover croissants and scones to a homeless shelter. Last week it held a jazz-and-poetry-reading benefit for the local rape-crisis center. And the company treats workers respectably - even part-timers get full health benefits. "People who work at Starbucks have a bent toward doing good," says Lynn Schulte, the company's director of marketing in the Northeast.

"If you've got a beef with Starbucks, you've got a beef with capitalism," McMahon says.

Well, yes, actually, some in Cambridge do.

The gathering place for the anti-Starbucks crowd is a tattered bookshop called The Lucy Parsons Center. Its paint-peeling shelves teem with issues of The World Socialist Review, biographies of Che Guevara, and the like. Protesters come in, grab a picket sign out of the back room, and head across the street to Starbucks. They say they've succeeded in keeping customers from going in.

But they've also irked others. At 1369, a locally owned coffee shop up the street, a customer named Philip recounts how the protesters came into 1369 to whip up support for their anti-Starbucks crusade. "They were so obnoxious, I had to go to Starbucks for some peace and quiet," he says.

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