Monday, November 08, 2004

When worlds collide

As you may have been able to determine from my messages thus far, I’ve got significant issues with large-scale commercialism wiping out the unique character of small town America (and Canada…the issue is universal, after all.)

I’m not opposed to the good things that corporately-controlled chains bring to the landscape. When you’re far from home, or it’s late at night – or both – and you absolutely need a certain something to keep your little one from spiking a fever faster than an ascending space shuttle, you appreciate the fact that big box stores can often afford to keep themselves open 24 hours.

The big places are also quite adept at keeping a hold on prices. And I have no interest in paying any more for the stuff I need to keep my family’s existence on an even keel.

Yet the loss to society is clear. The days of the mom and pop shop are rapidly drawing to a close. The loss extends far beyond the wholesale replacement of personalized service from someone you’d have over for dinner with corporate-sanctioned training of “personalized” service for minimum-wage-earners who likely won’t even be working there next week.

Perversely, this commoditization of all things local and unique generates some rich opportunities for writing.

For example, Rebecca Skloot wrote a powerful piece on this very issue in the October 17th edition of the New York Times Magazine. Entitled Two Americas, Two Restaurants, One Town, it profiled two restaurants in the town of New Martinsville, West Virginia. Baristas represented the homegrown, personally-owned-and-operated business that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Bob Evans, on the other hand, represented the ultimate expression of a chain restaurant whose mantra is to create exactly the same experience no matter where you are.

The story used the then-approaching election to highlight the differences in people – those who want predictability vs. those who are willing to take a chance on some local spice – but the message is just as powerful any time, and far transcends mere election-time reportage.

Interestingly, a quick look at their respective web sites might tell a rather revealing tale. Baristas is about as sophisticated as circa 1997 HTML-coding tools allowed. It’s a riot of color, fonts and fuzzy photos. Sort of like the chaos of home, and it makes me want to jump in the car now and head on down to experience it for myself. Bob Evans, on the other hand, is as slick as the latest development tools and servers allow. The sidebar on the left-hand side of the page lists “Our Company” and “Investors” first. Only then do they tell you about their recipes. I guess we know where their priorities lie.

I can get the same thing at any number of places nearby. And I'm sure it won't be long before they target my own neighborhood. Oooh, lucky me.

I fear the milquetoast brigade is winning. The Bob Evanses of the world are slowly creeping across the land while the Baristas slowly close up shop as their owners near retirement and tire of fighting the overwhelming pressure of a conglomerate.

It saddens me to see such heritage slowly heading into oblivion. When we talk about abstract terms like globalization of markets and commoditization of goods and services, the on-the-ground impact is felt here. This is where we pay for our efficiencies, and I’m far from convinced that we’re better off as a result.

Consequently, I’ll get off the Interstate and head for the side road if it means my experience can be more meaningful than the same homogenized garbage I can get at thousands of other identical outlets serving the same homogenized garbage. Life is too short for me to waste on milquetoast. I hope you, too, are willing to take a chance on finding that special experience no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

Note: The story originally appeared on the New York Times Magazine’s site. Because they retain free copy for only a couple of weeks post-publication, I have included a link to a mirror site at Bob Coffield’s Care Law Blog.

A couple of other related blog comments can be found here:

My final question, then: does this issue move you as much as it moved me? If so, why? If not, why not?


Dean said...

My ex-wife used to insist on going to malls. I couldn't see the point, because they are all the same, a monoculture.

I do think that the monoculture model is breaking down. At least, I see it here in Vancouver, where local homegrown places are overtaking Starbucks, for example.

There is hope yet.

Chris said...

While I long to champion the small and character-rich, I must confess that when I'm shopping with 2 children in tow, I head for the big guys. On my own, I'm perfectly happy to spend a day wandering aimlessly, delighting in one-a-of-kind finds. But if I need to get in, make my purchase and get out, bored offspring whining at my feet, I'm guilty of falling into the 'bigger is better' trap.

I do think we're going to see a backlash on some level - I don't think the Wal-Marts and Home Depots of the world are going to disappear (in part because a significant portion of the population don't trust variety or personality - and their volume buying provides prices that are just too good to pass up on commodity items) - but I think the middle-sized chains are going to get swallowed up and their space taken up by stores that can create a one-of experience for customers who are tired of vanilla.

I suspect it will also be a class thing - the poorest will continue to shop at the big chains, partly becausee of the prices, partly because it allows them to have what everyone else has. It's only once you've got the basics that you start looking for experiences that make you stand out from the crowd. The very rich already have their boutiques and personalized service. But the middle class, I expect, will start demanding more from their suppliers - they have both the time and the discretionary income to shop around, to make their choices based on the experience instead of the product.

Some of the big on-line guys have recognized this. Much as I love small and quirky bookstores, I'm impressed by Amazon's algorithm's ability to recommend relevant books to me. Still, it will never replace the feeling of walking into a local store and having the owner pull something out from under the counter for you, something they set aside especially for you because they thought you'd like it.