Coffee wars: No one makes a mocha-ry of Totnes

You know how it is when you drink too much coffee and you start to feel jittery, then your eyes bulge a bit and, before you can say “another grande skinny latte, please”, you have a caffeine-fuelled urge to storm the high street, waving placards, agitating and causing civil unrest? No? Perhaps that’s just the people of Totnes, then.

The small and ancient Devonshire town set on the river Dart has 41 establishments where you can buy a coffee, and when it was announced the other day that there was to be a 42nd, they sort of snapped.

It wasn’t that they didn’t want another coffee shop — they are mad for the stuff, clearly — it was that they objected to it being part of a chain. It was Costa, in this case, though it could have been Starbucks or Caffè Nero. You see, the town prides itself, quite rightly, on having a distinctive character. All its other coffee shops are independents, with names such as Totnes People’s Cafe, Food For Thought and The Curator Café.

That’s the thing about Totnes. It is known as “the alternative capital” because its citizens are free spirits. The word “eco” often crops up in connection with the town. As does “meditation workshop”. And the building which Costa is to take over was occupied by Greenlife Organic Wholefoods – so popular it needed larger premises. The proximity of Dartington College has made the place something of a cultural mecca — book and arts events, people expressing themselves through the medium of dance.

This is why so many TV, pop and media types have moved to the area, from Jennifer Saunders to Damon Albarn and Rik Mayall. I drove there not long ago to meet Jonathan Dimbleby, who also lives nearby.

Given its sponsorship of a major literary prize, you might suppose that Costa would be welcomed here. That is to miss the point being made by the good people of Totnes. They don’t want their idiosyncratic town to become a “clone”.

“Totnes is one of the few towns that has managed to keep its individuality,” says Totnes local Diana Lusher, 74, a retired TV production assistant whose husband Don Lusher, the trombone player, led the Ted Heath Big Band. “You go from one town to the other and they’re the same.

“I know there is a problem because this shop has been empty for some time, and the rent is terribly high and probably only a chain like that can afford it. But we have got an enormous number of cafés and coffee shops already.”

The new Costa will be less than 100 yards from the Fat Lemon Café, owned by Ian Gregory, 46. “I feel that Costa has a place,” he says, “but not in a town this size. Costa has a place in large cities and at motorway services. This is about the integrity and the character of the town. We have a strong tourist industry here and people come to visit because Totnes is different – not full of Costas or KFCs.”

Many towns have lost their character in recent years. Petersfield, my local market town in Hampshire, does still have a very good independent book shop — One Tree Books, which was named Bookseller of the Year 2010 — but it also has, well, you know the brands, because every high street in the land is the same.

Sometimes communities object to this cloning, as Brighton did when Starbucks wanted to open a branch in St James’s Street. Barely a week goes by without a town launching a “Say No To Tesco” campaign — or Sainsbury’s or whoever — but they rarely do any good. In 2006, the people of Darlington, Co Durham, won a campaign against a new Tesco only to find, five years on, it had fought the decision and been given approval.

It seems coffee chains are the new battleground for middle England. Economist Naomi Klein singled out Starbucks for criticism in her anti-corporate book No Logo, accusing it of running sites at a loss to squeeze out the opposition. For its part, Starbucks denies doing anything dodgy and argues that its expansion increases overall demand for coffee. Perhaps it does.

Nowadays Starbucks has had to bow to Costa, which has 1,390 UK stores, more than its two closest competitors combined. Like Starbucks, Costa has ready answers to its critics. The chain insists its new branch in Totnes “will not be a threat and instead aims to add new vibrancy by complementing the local offering”.

Perhaps it will. And perhaps it is reckless during a recession to discourage any chain prepared to invest and offer employment. This said, it does seem as if the wishes of the locals have been ignored. Some 5,749 – three-quarters of the town’s population – signed an anti-Costa petition and pledged to boycott the branch. When the application was approved by South Hams district council the other day, 150 people marched in protest.

Will that be an end to it? Perhaps not. As Pruw Bowell, the town’s mayor said: “We have lost this battle but whether we have lost the war, I’m not yet sure.”

What was it that Tooting’s Citizen Smith used to cry? Power to the people? The Totnes Popular Front, that has a certain ring to it.