[Yesterday, we completed the two transactions that we announced on Wednesday. We sold our 560 shares of Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI) for $31.76 each (total proceeds: $17,777.10). We also covered our short of Affymetrix (Nasdaq: AFFX) at $14.946 per share -- darn those split trades -- at a total cost of $17,200.50. That gave us an overall gain of $7,643 on the short. We're looking to redeploy the money soon.]

I've been away from the Rule Breaker column space for a month, working with a team to put together our  upcoming self-paced seminar on Rule Breaker investing. Starting to write again, it's hard to go back to the usual discussions about stocks after everything that's happened. But sometimes just doing the normal thing makes the most sense. There's nothing more normal for us in this space than to look at the strategy's criteria, the elements that drive this portfolio.

For me, it's always been a challenge that the first criterion is so darn subjective. We require a Rule Breaker to be in an emerging, important industry. What, I ask, is up with important? Heck, if you're a certain profile, video games might be important (and certainly have been emerging over the last decades), while using biotechnology to make better health care through diagnostics and drugs might seem most important to another. As they say, chacun a son gout, one man's meat is another's poison, and so on. "Important" is subjective -- as in, you know it when you see it.

Recognizing that importance is squishy, we like to use several tests. We think an important industry has lasting relevance, deep customer reach, and expanding possibilities. Think eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY) online auctions and Half.com sales, which hit all three and really ring the bell on the last two. Ditto bioinformation, practiced by our Celera Genomics (NYSE: CRA) holding. Though the industry is still very much emerging, bioinformatics has the potential to satisfy all three tests.

But the one I like best is this pivotal final question, "What if this industry disappeared today? How many people would notice and care?" To me, this is the acid test, and the real reason that Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) was and is a Rule Breaker. 

A word (all right, a whole paragraph) about Starbucks: The company closed all its stores after the terrorist attacks until the next day so that its partners (as the company calls its employees) could go home to be with their families. The company also made a $1,000,000 donation to The September 11th Fund, established by the New York Community Fund and the United Way to benefit victims and their families, and all those affected by the terrorist attacks. Starbucks Cares collected cash contributions, 100% of which go to the The September 11th Fund. Starbucks has joined many other companies that have used their resources to provide relief, and we applaud their efforts.

Now for a highly subjective take on why Starbucks is important in a Rule Breaking-business sense.       

The importance of coffee
If you live in the U.S., can you remember life before Starbucks, before the green letters became part of the landscape? Before you, friends, and business acquaintances asked "Is there a Starbucks nearby?" even if you meant coffee shop or caf� generically (like we used to say, "Xerox that document" or most everyone asks for a Kleenex)? Prior to the 1980s, your life was basically coffee crystals in a jar. When they dragged out the drip coffeemaker on holidays at Grandma's, it was a big deal.

Against this backdrop, many of us grew up seeing Europe as some far away, fascinating place, where people really knew how to live. They lingered over espresso in outdoor caf�s, far from any harried waitstaff keen to increase table turnover. They drank real coffee, not our brown-water instant. They had culture.

Living in Caracas, Venezuela in the early 1980s gave me the chance to see coffee culture up close as a working resident, not a tourist. Every corner -- and mid-corner, too -- had an espresso bar, along with fresh juices (ahhh, tamarind...) and a variety of unusual sandwiches. You could belly-up and order dynamite espresso from peque�o to grande. The caf�s were social centers for the neighborhoods, where Caraque�os jazzed up on leaded all day long. Hey, I couldn't hack it: I had to give up the caffeine buzz because it brought me to my teaching job each day just plain out of control.

Coffee culture comes to the U.S.
We didn't have anything like it in the U.S. Sure, there were rare, cool places in big cities that had espresso machines, usually with smoke and foreign languages in the air. Things changed slowly. Working in Seattle for the summer of 1986, I gaped at a new phenomenon in the Coffee City -- the espresso cart -- on the street and in the Safeway. Europe had come to the U.S. Hardly a surprise that caffeine culture exploded in Seattle: Jewel of the northwest, true, but also home to weather encouraging seasonal affective disorder.

When Starbucks first took the Seattle coffee phenomenon nationally, it would descend upon a city in force, opening many locations quickly. That began in 1987 in Chicago. I was working downtown, slowly reducing mountains of school debt. On the caffeine wagon for years, I slid off after joining a group of office friends for a morning trip to the nearby Starbucks. It was a small place in some very expensive Loop real estate, with no real space in which to linger. It was a Friday. For a treat, I had what a friend ordered, a mocha latte with whipped cream.

Hopped up on espresso, I sailed back into the bullpen office I shared with two others and bellowed, "Good morning all! I LOVE my job!"

"Will somebody please get Jacobs off the coffee?" they begged. 

Too late. In weeks, Starbucks had created a monster. I was an addict.

Starbucks prospered, and didn't kill other caf�s. For one thing, the company appeared to choose certain visible, high-traffic locations that, not unexpectedly, charged the highest rents and -- with some exceptions -- were too small to encourage hanging out. There appears to be plenty of business for quirky neighborhood haunts that choose less pricey locations nearby and are happy to let you linger for hours. Whenever I visit Chicago, I see the same non-Starbucks joints still thriving.

Now that's an important industry.    

Starbucks in American life
People forget what most cities were like before Starbucks, back in the 1970s and 1980s when the first waves of gentrification brought childless risk-takers into depressed areas of cities to rehab bargain basement homes. They wanted some kind of community, with the population density that brings a kind of public life with it. It's happened so successfully that people don't remember otherwise.

Coffee houses were just one byproduct of that returning public life. Starbucks rode the wave of revitalized urban centers and became a symbol of that success. Today, when a Starbucks opens in any location -- urban or suburban -- it's a sign not so much that coffee culture has arrived, but that the place itself has arrived. (Brian Lund has written about the ubiquity and importance of the Starbucks experience. Ditto that early Sopranos episode where the guys are in a coffee shop and it dawns on them: "Cappuccino? We're Italian!We missed a heckuva legit business opportunity here.")    

No wonder that Starbucks aims to establish itself "as the most recognized and respected brand in the world." With 3,500 locations worldwide at the end of its fiscal year 2000, it believes it has the potential for 20,000. Once top dog and first mover in coffee, it has become the industry. 

Important industry, important company. More and more, we can't imagine life without this coffee star.     

Tom Jacobs (TMF Tom9) wishes everyone well in these difficult times. At press time, he owned no shares in companies mentioned in this story. To see his stock holdings, view his profile, and check out The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.