Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Elitist Big City Blue State Response to Virginia Postrel's "In Praise of Chain Stores" Essay

Any Twin Cities resident who has ventured into more than one of Cub Foods' warehouse style grocery stores can tell you that they are, for the most part, laid out exactly the same. From St. Paul's Midway neighborhood to three locations in Blaine, on to Lake Street in Minneapolis -- they are virtually identical. Is this such a bad thing? I can go into any location and know exactly where the bottled water is. It's convenient.

But do they do it for me? They do if you believe that by repeating a pattern they keep prices low. Isn't that good?

It's hard for liberals to argue with the immediacy of lower prices to the face of a single mother with kids to feed. The arguments about big chains and Walmarts destroying the fabric of Anytown, USA sound elitist and out of touch.

But then I still don't quite buy the argument in Virginia Postrel's essay "In Praise of Chain Stores" in this month's Atlantic Monthly. Her first point is as follows:
The first thing you notice in Chandler [, Arizona] is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliche that "everywhere looks like everywhere else" is obvious nonsense. Chandler's land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.
Of course. But when you take into account the landscaping and piped water that turns arid climates into little oases and green wonderlands (even amid acres of tarmac), things start to even out. Utah and New Jersey and Washington start to look alike in the over-developed mall property. And then there's the indoors. The only Starbucks store I've ever seen that didn't look like any other was the first location ever -- the one in Seattle. And don't try to tell me that the interior design of malls noticeably varies according to climate. Nobody buys it.

But Postrel's real argument is that, sure, this stuff all looks the same, but a) people who wouldn't get the chance to buy stuff can now buy stuff, and b) ignore the fact that everything in the mall looks the same. The people and the weather are different.

Postrel's point that it wasn't any better fifty years ago does ring true though. Liberals and conservatives alike long for a past that never necessarily was. The 1950s weren't so squeaky clean as we'd like to think. And big chains have been plowing over mom and pop since the Dutch East India Company started in 1602.

Postrel's next argument:
Chains do more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery -- the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler -- or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles -- didn't have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it "the kind of place every neighborhood should have." So what's wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?
In spreading innovation and knowledge, chains flatten everything out. Not only do they create similarity across great swaths of the country, they also tend to dumb things down in the name of efficiency, uniformity, and affordability. And they stamp out local expressions of individuality. If I sound shrill, it might be because I'm one of Postrel's "bored cosmopolites."

Reading on, I begin to wonder if I'm about to asked for my feelings about "freedom" (there's only one right answer, pinko). We're not quite to the "why do you hate God?" level (a question a friend in Milwaukee tells me he's been asked more than once), but Postrel is beginning to adopt the posture of the populist conservative bewildered by why anyone would not share her good feelings about "Anywhere, USA":
The children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals are no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis. For them, this isn't tourism; it's life -- the experiences that create the memories from which the meaning of a place arises over time. Among Chandler's most charming sights are the business-casual dads joining their wives and kids for lunch in the mall food court. The food isn't the point, let alone whether it's from Subway or Dairy Queen.
As powerful as our need for a sense of belonging is, we also have a need for individuality. It's a terrible paradox for Americans who want to feel at once a unique star and a part of a great collective.

Take Ayn Rand's bizarre pamphlet "A Screen Guide for Americans". It was a rant aimed at Hollywood, an attempt to convince moviemakers to stop their cryptic glorification of Communism in film. In it, Ms. Rand sets out some rules, like "Don't Smear the Profit Motive."

Ponder this passage from "Don't Smear an Independent Man" and try not to think of those 158 neighborhood California Pizza Kitchens:
"Conformity, alikeness, servility, submission and obedience are necessary to establish a Communist slave state. Don't help the Communists to teach men to acquire these attitudes."
The emphasis on "don't" is hers. Substitute the word Communist for the word Capitalist in that passage and your average college liberal wouldn't blink. So wouldn't you think we could all agree more often?

The Americans who lament the spread of chain stores aren't merely disappointed tourists. Nor are they latte and limosine liberals longing for quaint small towns that match their fantasies. We are people from big cities who see what happens when the tiny Vietnamese take-out place loses its lease to Starbucks, which already has a shop across the street. We're also people from small towns who operate diners that looked like every other small town diner. Except that there wasn't a corporate directive on decor. And we're people skeptical of uniformity. Like Ayn Rand, only without ulterior motives.

I can't help thinking Postrel's essay is a hastily constructed booby trap designed to trick me into accidentally revealing my disdain for the average red state American. Oops! Did I just say I think Ma and Pa Cul de Sac sitting in the food court in their Dockers(tm) are phony clones with bad taste? I didn't mean that.

We don't mind chains until they become so polished that we can't see our own reflection in them anymore for all the bright and distorted gloss. We don't mind chains until they mean that counter staff are called "associates" and customers are called "guests." And when smock-wearing teens look through you and repeat a mantra -- welcometoblankmynameisTinahowcanIgiveyougreatservicetoday. It's when we start falling for the idea that the only way to stand out is to wear what everyone else is wearing. Mind the Gap.

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