Friday, May 18, 2007

Take These Chains from My Heart and Set Me Free…

Our Town downtown
February 5, 2007

Last week in her back page essay, Gaije Kushner’s headline asked, ‘Wal-Mart, Coming Soon to a Block Like Yours? It could happen here.’

I could see us avoiding Wal-Mart. But we didn’t avoid Home Depot. And there are Staples all around. I buy a can of soup sometimes at the CVS on my block. I buy milk and orange juice there too in a pinch. As in pinching pennies; stuff is cheaper there. Barnes & Noble has a store card—like my CVS does—that gives you discounts that you can’t get at the smaller, cozier, warmer bookstores, which is why there are fewer of those great small bookstores even in this town where people have money and where the publishing world is centered.

I don’t have one of those B&N cards; I’m always somehow in a hurry and can’t fill one out. Maybe I don’t want to be one of those people who obsess over money things in bookstores. Those people who do obsess will thumb through the books in their neighborhood bookstore and then go home and order online from Amazon or someplace even cheaper. We could all be that way if we let ourselves. Those people (us, if we’re like that) would be at Wal-Mart in a heartbeat, or quicker—and feeling good about it—if vitamins or teeth whitening strips were cheaper there. Costco and Target are chains and are putting small independent stores out of business too, but they have some cachet that allows the normally-hand-wringing watchdogs over globalization to let down their guard, just like they do for anything Steve Jobs comes out with even if it’s for sure putting good old record stores out of business.

My kids mock me—Mr. Sixties—for going to chains at all. They go to neighborhood coffee shops that aren’t Starbucks. They buy their books at Three Lives bookshop. Their drugstore is Bigelow’s. I try to defend my occasional stops at B&N and Starbucks by saying on my soapbox that the real homogenization of society is not from chain stores but from television, and that sitting like zombies in front of a flickering rectangle every single night is way more lemming-like than all the lines of folks going in all the chain stores in the world. They don’t even answer that claim, they’re such TV addicts.

But even though I’m right about TV being the great chain store of culture, my kids are right about me being a hypocrite for going to chain stores. What the hell did I move to New York for? To eat at Boston Market?

I’m working on the coffee. There are plenty of local shops and restaurants to get a coffee from. I don’t need a chain for that. Do you? Bookstores for sure I can find that are independents. I go to them already. You can find them too. They’re the ones without escalators, and without the Godiva Chocolate bars by the cash registers.

When we read about someone who doesn’t e-mail or who still uses a Smith Corona typewriter we think that’s authentically cool. I think it’s authentically cool that my kids go to Three Lives for books and Jack’s for coffee. I should follow their lead for a change.

Here’s how the small stores could make it easier for me and you to go to them. Stay open as late as the chains. Small bookstores if you’re listening: You and the neighborhood libraries have to stay open as late as the chain bookstores do. If Friday’s stayed open longer than the neighborhood bars every night, they’d get most of the beer business eventually. You can’t close early and expect people not to go where the lights are still on. If you don’t at least do that, you can’t complain. And if we don’t at least make an effort to get our books from those small places, and our coffee and our vitamins and our beers from neighborhood spots, we won’t be able to complain when we’re standing someday in line trying to figure which two sides do we want to go with the Carver sandwich at Boston Market where the bagel place used to be.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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