Monday, February 21, 2011

Chains and community

McClelland's reminiscence of Borders started me thinking about chains in general.

I'm reflexively anti-chain because I hate seeing smaller, local businesses go under. I also hate seeing our nation homogenized.

Thinking about it, though, has made me question my hostility.

Walmart overwhelms local grocery stores because everybody sells the same brands, so the only distinguishing factor is price. And there are local grocery stores everywhere because we all need groceries, so everyone has a story about a mom-and-pop grocery store that shut its doors because it couldn't compete against the big bad box store.

There are lots of places without bookstores, though. Maintaining an eclectic bookstore is expensive because of the need to stock materials that might not sell for a while, or ever. Not every community is big enough to support such a commitment. For some communities, maybe a lot, I suspect a Borders is as close to a great bookstore as they can get. Yes, I'm making a value judgment here about what constitutes a great bookstore. I don't want to get into the debate of whether Borders is one or not. For me, a better question is, does every community need a great bookstore?

Actually, it's a broader question: does every community need a great <fill in the blank>? And if the only way to get it, or even a semblance of it, is to invite a chain to town, is that such a bad thing?

Homogenization worries me. Different regions have (or had) distinct features that made their cultures unique. Accents and dialects are obvious examples, but so are arts and crafts, or specialized food items. I'd hate to lose those unique and often wonderful creations. Cultural diversity even in this limited form keeps us from becoming too rigid and unimaginative in our thinking.

On the other hand, you can only foster a sense of community if you can induce people to share something. Reading the same books, watching the same TV shows, these contribute to a sense of a shared cultural heritage. You can't build a nation of 300 million spread across 3000 miles (east to west) if people are balkanized into tiny groups that have nothing in common.

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