Observation | Monocle

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This isn’t going to come as major news but I’ll say it anyway: you, dear reader, are not easy to please. No sooner had we put our July/August issue to bed and boarded a plane for Copenhagen to offer the Most Liveable City Award to mayor Ritt Bjerregaard than you started sending messages about a whole new liveability index you’d like to see Monocle tackle.

While you seemed generally pleased with our rankings, save for the odd militant San Franciscan who couldn’t believe their city didn’t make the top five let alone the top 25, there was a steady stream of requests calling for a top 50 global ranking of the most attractive, alluring and liveable villages and towns in the world. While we haven’t committed the idea to our editorial calendar yet, there was an overwhelming number of readers who are clearly looking for a more manageable alternative to big city life in the form of a “have it all hamlet” – remote-ish location, good transport connections, faultless communications and well-run shops and services. Given that so many people responded to our mini questionnaire in the June issue by stating that they crave village life in big cities, it’s hardly surprising that so many are in search of the real thing in the countryside.

While we work on developing the appropriate criteria to find the best villages to call home, this issue marks the launch of a new series focusing on tiny slivers of the urban landscape that emphasise their local, independent, slightly homespun assets. For well over a year we’ve been underscoring the importance of small, family-owned businesses as an essential ingredient for healthy communities. On page 160 our Edits editor Saul Taylor has nominated London’s Lamb’s Conduit Street as an international benchmark of how an exquisitely curated street can define a whole community.

In a nation that’s rapidly seeing its urban villages evaporating. Lamb’s Conduit Street demonstrates that an interesting community requires passionate retailers, residents and patrons to work. The neighbourhood’s reaction to the opening of a Starbucks (low-scale graffiti and perhaps the odd emptying of a bladder against the front door) revealed a sentiment that is increasingly being felt on high streets, shopping parades and retail precincts around the world – residents want to support businesses that are woven into the community rather than just exploiting a passing opportunity.

Starbucks’ current woes both at home and abroad are an example of what happens when a global brand pretends to be a community player but ultimately falls short on both spirit and product. While the company has no doubt helped shape communities in less sophisticated urban environments, it’s been a catastrophe in more evolved areas. The shuttering of over 60 out of 80-odd stores in Australia is a cautionary tale of what might happen to other global brands that fail to do their research and don’t respond to local tastes and habits. How anyone at Starbucks HQ in Seattle could have had the arrogance (read: stupidity) to think they could teach Australians a trick or two about the finer points of retailing caffeine kicks shows an intelligence failure matched only by the CIA’s circa September 11 2001.

Starbucks’ retreat from Australia is also a triumph of craft and care over medium-roast mediocrity. Whether you like your flat whites from Swell in Avalon or Philippa’s in Armadale, Australia has created a coffee culture that is only matched by Italy’s and small pockets in Tokyo’s Naka-Meguro and Daikanyama. The rise of an Antipodean barista mob in London will likely chase more branches of Starbucks out of neighbourhoods where their daily takings are slipping and consumers are converted to the ways of enthusiastic baristas from Fitzroy and Potts Point who take pride in their grinding and steaming.

As the northern hemisphere enjoys its last lick of summer sun and prepares to give its all for the last quarter of 2008 we’ve been sharpening our own craft. From cover to monocle.com to our merchandise offer, we’ve tweaked and refined the mix. In Affairs we’ve added “Me & My Motorcade” – a regular look at how heads of state charge through their capitals and across the world. In Business, there’s a new investing column that will seek out more obscure opportunities. And in culture we’ve expanded our coverage of the art market.

As the summer light starts to fade, we’re going to escape for a few days to start sizing up those villages we all wouldn’t mind making our first or second residence. If you have any questions or comments, do get in touch at tb@monocle. We’re back again with our October issue – out on September 18. From all of us in London, New York and Tokyo, thank you for your support, feedback and tips.

For more from our editor-in-chief, you can read his column in the FT Weekend.

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