Chain, chain, chain

In that same December issue of The Atlantic Monthly with its list of Uninteresting Americans (see below: A Hole in the Atlantic), Virginia Postrel argues that chain stores are good for us.

There's much to be said for chains. As irrritatingly ubiquitous as it is, Starbucks, for instance, has transformed coffee in this country, generally for the better. Twenty years ago, good-quality cappucinos and lattes were nearly nonexistent in many parts. And before there was, the bookstore chains Borders and Barnes & Noble brought a wide range of literature to many areas of the country that had never seen so many books before.

But chain improvements often come with a price. Starbucks, for instance, charges a steep toll for a cup of ordinary joe. In Ms. Postrel's hometown of Dallas, I can go to Wild about Harry's, a favorite local hot-dog-and-custard stand, and buy a nice coffee for 95 cents. Less than a block away, Starbucks will sell me pretty much the same thing for nearly three times that amount. And it's Starbucks' prices that one increasingly sees in coffeehouses across America.

As is characteristic of Ms. Postrel -- who makes much of her living enthusiastically defending suburbia and the great changes wrought by corporate commercialism --she wisks away this kind of unpleasantness. Her article's basic argument is that the widespread notion that chains have increased the "sameness" of America -- made it all so cookie-cutter boring that it has become "the geography of nowhere" -- that notion is completely wrong. Even if it weren't wrong, this kind of gloomy liberal-urban-media snobbery always seems to set her teeth on edge.

And she's right. There's still a lot of local color out there, if one looks beyond the 7-11 clutter. And the 'lost' local color we often pine for was precisely the kind that wouldn't have wanted most of us: It was small-minded, xenophobic. Also, for many people in small towns, a new, nearby Best Buy -- as with a new Borders -- has often meant a major uptick in convenience and wider access to goods.

Let's not get into what a new Wal-Mart has or has not meant for them.

The problem is that Ms. Postrel makes it easy on her chainstores-are-wonderful argument. She goes to Chandler, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, and notes that even with all those same-same-same chains, the town is still very distinct from, say, New England or the Carolinas.

Yes, one must admit that the Arizona desert is a wee bit different from New England's wet pine trees. But if Ms. Postrel were suddenly transported to a mysterious subdivision of my choosing, she would be hard-pressed, I would think, to tell if she were in a northern suburb of Dallas, a northern suburb of Houston or a northern suburb of San Antonio (unless a sign told her). And those three cities are in distinct physiographic areas -- from blackland prairie to sub-tropical grassland to Texas' Hill Country.

For those people who think, well, that's just three cities in Texas -- not fully grasping how wildly various the geography is in the Lone Star State -- we can shift our test to three Midwestern states. I sincerely doubt it's all that easy to distinguish portions of many of the suburbs of Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinatti, Toledo and Chicago. I've been there.

It's revealing that in her description of Chandler, Ms. Postrel doesn't linger over the fact that it's no longer a farm community. She's not one for that kind of back-to-the-earth nostalgia, and neither am I. But it's also a necessary part of her change-is-good strategy: Ms. Postrel must denigrate what we've "lost." The local "mom & pop" retailers were unimpressive, and it's no great shakes that they went under: "The range of retailing ideas in any given town was rarely that great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store."

One wonders if Ms. Postrel has ever looked through a hardware store for something other than an appliance or a name-brand house paint. Even the chains -- other than Lowe's or Home Depot -- can be significantly different. In Dallas, one will search futilely for particular brackets or specialty bolts in an Ace Hardware, but one will most likely find them at Elliott's, which has an impressive stock of oddities and doohickies, although not as many paint options as the big chains. In Detroit, where I grew up, hardware stores, not unexpectedly, sold a much wider range of automotive parts than one finds today in any Home Depot. Conversely, other Detroit hardware stores were little more than lumber yards with some plumbing supplies on the side. I am not arguing that any of these were better than a Home Depot, but contra Ms. Postrel, they had very different, very individual inventories.

What makes Ms. Postrel's arguments often so challenging -- why she regularly finds work at places like The Atlantic -- is her eagerness to get beyond the usual mindsets. She was for the war in Iraq, for example, and voted for Bush, but, frankly, never liked him much -- a position that has the added bonus of leaving her unsurprised and not particularly disillusioned when it became plain that Bush misled the country about ... well, about all those reasons Ms. Postrel must have had for going to war.

Ms. Postrel almost always does battle with the Received Wisdom (generally liberal but not always) because the Received Wisdon, by its nature, is statist and she, as her website declares, is a happy "dynamist" (her term). Hers is a very American enthusiasm: Let us ride the waves of change. Change is progress, the future is good, new technology is good, the free market that delivers new goods and change is good. Anyone who questions these syllogisms is grumpy, backwards-looking, repressive and un-American.

What often makes Ms. Postrel's energetic arguments irksome, however, is her determined obliviousness to any downside to the free market or mass-market values. Sell the people what they want; stick another Gap store in there. CEOs deserve the rewards they can get from their chums on the board, no matter how poor their company performs, because that's the law of supply and demand.

Because this post has gone on long enough, you'll have to go to the jump to read my "Grumpy Background Disclosure."

Grumpy background disclosure: Several years ago, Ms. Postrel, whom I've never met, took more or less the opposing side to me in The Dallas Morning News on the question of whether Dallas was an intellectual center or not. I said the air is thin around here because people mostly come to North Texas for jobs -- and leave for them, too -- and we don't have the kinds of institutions that keep deep thinkers around. Ms. Postrel feels that refreshingly, Dallas is nowhere as hidebound as brainy coastal centers like New York or San Francisco -- it's new, it's promising, it has a future (sound familiar? Ms. Postrel really doesn't like the past much) -- although we certainly could use a good research library.

Then, earlier this year on her blog, Ms. Postrel called me a "grouchy" book critic (she really, really dislikes negativity), a charge that left family and friends blinking in bafflement, knowing what a tender sweetheart I am. She took exception to my knocking the internet triumphalism that often cheered the supposed demise of the book. Not true, she argued. Bloggers love books, the internet is great for books.

I wrote to her to point out that a previous column of mine was entirely dedicated to recommending individual book blogs and websites and that she had bewilderingly ignored the context of the internet triumphalism remark, which actually concerned how publishing was adapting to the new digital technology and how the internet was warming up to books.

Judge for yourself: "No wonder blogospheroids still crow over the book's imminent demise -- as if in revenge for ever having to read one. Meanwhile, publishers are text-messaging teens to sell books. They're experimenting with "viral" Web campaigns, Google set up its Print library, Amazon will soon sell books by the page and the number of litblogs has ballooned, all of them chattering on about books.

"All of this looks less like the last, frantic efforts of a dying trade and more like our future of 'multi-platform delivery systems.'"

Ms. Postrel replied, graciously acknowledged not having seen the earlier column, ignored my point about context and never seems to have amended her blog entry.

Trivial stuff, for the most part, but I thought I should mention it.

November 29, 2006 12:18 PM | | Comments (6)



Ah, Wal-Mart.

I want to read the Postrel just to get myself all fumed up, too.

I arrived in rural Indiana in 2000 full of liberal coastal bias. I tried valiantly to shop in the local stores: "Do you carry cocktail napkins?" "?" "You know, those little square ones, for parties." "No. Why don't you try Wal-Mart."

Over and over again the clerks in the shops in the run-down townsquare in Greencastle, Indiana, sent me out to SR 40 to the Wal-Mart (with a distribution center out back, no less.)

I shopped a lot at Wal-Mart those four years. I don't totally hate it. And it is cheap, which, however ill-gotten, helps the budget of one's own family: selfish but true.

We didn't leave Indiana for NYC because of Wal-Mart exactly, but it feels good to be able to say that I haven't needed one for the past two years.

Starbucks, however, is a different story.... : ) I willingly throw all my pin money their way...

Bill, for someone who knows me personally, you don't seem to pick up on my self-directed sarcasm -- that part about being such a sweetheart. And now I'm going to hunt you down and rip out your heart for saying I'm not.

Also, you didn't seem to notice that much of my post cited the advantages that chains have brought us (Starbucks improving Americans' taste for coffee, etc.). My point is that Ms. Postrel's argument is no more balanced than any blanket attack on chain stores.

For the record: My wife DOES shop at Wal-Mart occasionally. But of all the townfolk you know who love the many new goods Wal-Mart has brought them, how many actually work there? You worry about elitism? OK, how about a real working-class perspective on the company? Wal-Mart is the largest employer in America, and each year, sometimes as much as 50 percent of its work force walks out the door. Several HUNDRED THOUSAND people quit the place every year.

That tells us a lot about what a swell place it is to work. Whatever benefits it may provide its customers, it seems to be doing it on the backs of its low-paid, no-benefit employees.

Thanks for writing.


But, Jerome, you ARE grumpy. Why deny it?
As for Wal-Mart, everybody hates the chain except its customers. There is, about this chain-busting mentality, more than a whiff of elitism. My small-town Nebraska in-laws are delighted to drive to the Wal-Mart in Yankton. It sells stuff the old Western Auto and the corner drugstore (both defunct) never thought of carrying, at prices they can afford. Arguments about the losses suffered due to the franchisement of America don't make any sense unless we add the gains to the calculation.

Yes, but...

I remember years ago -- before Amazon and book superstores -- trying to find a copy of Ovid's Metamorphosis in rural Connecticut. The local bookstore clerk advised me to try looking in New Haven -- 45 minutes away.

I live in the hippest neighborhood in Houston. This means that even though many big chain stores are nearby, I still live among small business (restaurants, shops) that offer things that even the biggest big boxes can't. As a book lover, I can shop at Brazos Bookstore (an arts oriented bookstore aimed at intellectual readers), Domy (a funky arts and underground/alternative comics store), and two different Half Price Books and Records, not to mention a huge newsstand.

We have a Borders and a B&N nearby. I shop with them as well. They're fine.

But they will never cover things that interest me in particular--art, architecture, alternative comix, etc.--as well as Brazos or Domy. My reading life quite simply would be significantly less rich without those shops.

Complicating things in my neighborhood is the location of B&N. Back in the 80s, the old Alabama theater (a classic movie palace that in its last years was best known for its midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) went under. BookStop, a Texas-based chain, moved in and very creatively refubished the theater--keeping its basic interior layout, with a sloping floor, a balconey, etc. It was, for Houston, an amazing piece of preservation through repurposing. This in a city where the oldest building in town can be torn down in the middle of the night and turned into a parking lot.

Now BookStop was bought by Barnes & Noble. So far, no problem. They are in the old Alabama theater, and not much has changed. They added a cafe, but that's about it.

But apparently B&N would like to move to a bigger and more traditionally laid-out space. So they may move out. Now Weingarten Realty, which owns the Alabama, has a plan to move them from that location, tear down the old River Oaks shopping area (a gorgeous Art Deco shopping area that includes the last surviving movie palace, The River Oaks Theater, and build B&N a big box, (This would also mean tearing down the Alabama to create a more modern and flexible retail space there.)

I guess Postrel might say this was the old making way for the new. From my point of view as someone who has to live here, it's the old being replaced with utter crap.

Fortunately, there is opposition. The River Oaks Shopping Center is beloved by many of the wealthiest burghers in Houston, who live immediately adjacent to it. So even though historic preservation has no legal force in Houston, and money always trumps history, beauty, and neighborhood sentiment in Houston, there is some hope...

You should take a look at the new book, BIG BOX SWINDLE by Stacy Mitchell. Just a thought.


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