Monday, November 20, 2006

Chain Chain Chain

In the new Atlantic Monthly (which isn’t online quite yet), Virginia Postrel has a short essay buried near the back called “In Praise of Chain Stores.”

She doesn’t have to do much to convince me. I’ve always been a bit confused by those who most adamantly hate chains. I guess there are two major arguments -- aesthetics and utility.

Aesthetically, I don’t think chains can overwhelm the environment they’re in. As Postrel writes, “Stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do.”

In Dallas, where I used to live (and where Postrel currently lives, if I’m not mistaken), it would take more than just the eradication of chains to alter the character of the place. There’s a stretch of Sixth Avenue in New York, in the teens and lower 20s, that includes an Old Navy, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, not to mention other chain stores. But walking down the street, you wouldn’t be fooled into thinking you were in Dallas. Likewise, there are strip malls in Dallas that don’t just have chains -- they have local laundromats, stationery stores, etc. -- but they still feel a bit distant and sterile. In New York, you don’t have to drive to those places, so they’re arranged in a way that looks different, but the essential difference between the places remains one defined by driving vs. walking, not by some division of our relationship to shopping. New Yorkers experience community in another, more tightly packed way, but they aren’t somehow above materialism (ha ha) just because they partake of it in a way that’s landscaped differently.

As for utility, I still think chains, like most anything else, have to live or die based on their quality. Look at Blockbuster. I don’t know the business it’s currently doing, but I imagine it’s not overly impressive. Even in the 1990s, before the advent of Netflix and widespread on-demand services, Blockbuster’s stock left a lot to be desired. But chains that stay strong and well-supplied -- like B&N -- get no grief from me. Well, that’s not entirely true, but the less positive influences that behemoths like that can have on their industry are counterbalanced by the problems that would exist if they went under. I worked at a Borders store for a few months once, and I thought its stock was the best in Dallas. Without it, before and after I worked there, my browsing life would have been much poorer.

I’m not incapable of seeing the more insidious trends brought about by chains, but overall I’m a fan. And I haven’t even mentioned Denny’s yet.

To wrap this up, here's Postrel on how a lot of anti-chain sentiment doesn't take into account the benefits for people on the ground:
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 (Arizona) -- 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?


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