Skip to Main Content

Coffee, Pete, and the Four Horsemen

Here in Totnes, we’re in one of those periods where everything seems to be happening all at once. It’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing, of course, because there’s an abundance of compelling projects underway drawing new energy and shiny new faces into the mix. A curse, for me at least, because it means there will be some fun I’ll have to miss.

angela and hannahThe Totnes Independent Coffee Festival is a case in point. A couple of Sundays ago, the Market Square was inundated with mad coffee lovers, musicians, and stylin’ baristas, the latter competing for “best of” honours (Gary from La fourchette, incidentally). Unfortunately, I was away that day, but clearly it has stirred this town to action in a way only coffee politics and powerfully unreasonable women can. The event was the brainchild of Holly, Mary, Sima, Hannah, Angela and Michelle (I’m pretty sure, but this may not be strictly accurate and I’m sorry if I have left someone out) and the purpose was to mobilise the 26 local independent coffee houses, cafes, and restaurants and their loyal patrons to combat the invasion of corporate coffee giant, Costa Coffee.

There’s a vacant shop on Fore Street whose owner stipulates that only a national chain will do for a tenant. It used to be the home of Greenlife, the biggest whole foods shop in town who moved to a location on the Market Square a couple of years ago. Unlike so many other vacancies on our High Street, this space was vacated due to economic health. Regardless, its large windows and voluminous interior would seem just the sort of place a coffee chain like Costa would want, and apparently they do. They filed their planning permission with a 5-inch thick binder detailing the opposition they’ve overcome before in scores of other UK towns, a tactic described by the Town Council as “bullying”. But the council’s found its backbone and the town is duly pissed off. Totnes will be the town that says “no.”

The political and economic issues swirling around corporate coffee aggression in a small Devon town is a typical local manifestation of the global corporate system. John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman, recently spoke at Schumacher College, reminding his audience of this fact and pointing out its Achilles’ heel. “You vote with your dollars and pounds and euros every day. If you won’t give your corporate masters your money, they will simply go out of business.” 

With that thought in mind, I suggest to Pete that we meet for a coffee at Fat Lemon Cafe, “best coffee” winners at the festival. I’ve known Pete Smith for a little over a year. He’s a laidback Kiwi who’d come to Totnes with his family from Birmingham, but had spent most of the last 15 years or so in Holland. Last year he started the town’s first pizza delivery business, Pizza Gusto, and today was only his second day off. Last week was his first day off and he had invited me to join him for the Perkins talk. He’s an amateur economist, as so many of us are these days, drawn to learn more about how the masters of the universe had managed to put us all under their god-sized thumb. It’s become one of the themes of our friendship and what we’ve come to talk about this afternoon.

We begin, of course, talking about the incredibly hard work involved in starting a new business – it’s only his second day off in 9 months of trading. Ed’s got him covered and is back at Gusto HQ making dough and getting ready for the evening rush. 

“I’m thinking of turning it into a coop, a worker-owned coop. I like the idea of workers owning it, everyone having a shared goal,” he tells me. 

This comes as a bit of a surprise given the huge amount of effort and money he’s invested to make it go. It’s been success enough over the last several months that it’s created a kind of pizza craze in the town, with Il Vulcano setting up their mobile wood-fired oven on weekend nights, and local restaurants upping their games, too, with deals, promotions, and on one, a newly painted sign pumping up their pies.

“It’s all good,” he says, turning the conversation back toward coops and workers. I mention the examples in the film, Capitalism, a Love Story, and he counters with Noam Chomsky’s account of late 19th century American boom and bust capitalism and the progressive politics it spawned. It was the era of Henry George who identified land ownership as the fundamental determinant of economic equity, or inequity as the case may be. It was the era of populism and the Grangers, who developed enough political power to counter the ascendant captains of industry, of only temporarily. The dialectic counter movement to that democratic power was corporate personhood and the rise of corporate political activism, the effects of which we’ve been living with ever since.

“It was the Lehman Brothers collapse and the huge bank bailouts, and the politicians and economists lecturing that it’s all too complicated for common people to understand, you know ‘just trust us’. All of that just didn’t smell right. That’s when I thought, ‘wait a minute, I’ve got to look into this myself’, and that’s when I started reading and educating myself.” 

“That’s when you got into Henry George?”

He says “yes” and rattles off several more books and authors and eventually the thread of our conversation leads to the Four Horsemen, a film made, ostensibly, by some guys just like Pete, who took the economic collapse personally, educated themselves, then set out to educate others. 

“I called up the Barn to see if they’d screen it. They will, the first week in July.”

When he first told me that, I was little surprised. “Very cool, Pete,” I say.  Even cooler is that he’s not really involved in Transition. He’s gotten the film booked, and Satish Kumar, who’s in the film, will join the filmmakers on a panel for a post-screening discussion. It’s serendipity, because we’ve been looking to put together a series of talks for that month on the topic of the new economy. The film is a perfect lead in and would be followed the next week by Jonathan Dawson, co-chair of the Economics of Transition course at Schumacher. Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, will be teaching a short course there mid-month and we’ll get him to do the next talk. And then Jonathan will take the last week, wrap up the series, and connect all the dots.

I also see this as an opportunity to bring Pete into our REconomy group. We could use the help and his voice. Educated, smart, articulate – I start laying it on thick.

“Waddya say?” I ask.

He ponders as we finish our award-winning independent coffees. He takes a last look into his now empty cup.

“Yeah sure, alright,” he says with a little smile.


Images: Angela and Hannah at the Independent Coffee Festival; Fat Lemons coffee award; Pete Smith


Caroline Jackson's picture

I wish ...

The only greengrocery in Lancaster closed a few months back, when the owner suddenly decided to retire and sold on the lease to a petshop.  A group of us have got together with the intention of starting a cooperative to run a shop in Lancaster city centre. We have been doing our homework, gained lots of support from local people, found out about leases, footfall, rates, costed wages.  And reluctantly we conclude it simply can't be done - the risk of failing to make enough money to cover overheads is simply too high.  The only people who can afford the cost are the big boys - thenotionresisting them simply does not occur to the council.-  it seems to be a matter of pride that we do look like every other High Street in the country.  Depressing. Thanks anyway for showing how it could be.