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Chain Reaction

"We live in an age of increasing ubiquity, in which the quirks and eccentricities of local businesses are being overshadowed by the blandness of national retailers and service providers."

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Another Padow’s restaurant shut its doors last month. Roughly three years ago, Ukrop’s Super Markets sold out to Giant-Carlisle. And late last year, Bill’s Barbecue closed shop after nearly a century of doing business in Richmond.

Some Richmonders probably were amused at Mitt Romney’s suggestion that Bill’s Barbecue went under because of President Obama’s economic policies. It didn’t — it went under because it was an outdated business model serving lackluster food. And yet its closure, along with those of numerous other local Richmond businesses, should be a pointed reminder that we live in an age of increasing ubiquity, in which the quirks and eccentricities of local businesses are being overshadowed by the blandness of national retailers and service providers.

That’s not to say there’s no economic or psychological argument for the big outlets — there is. Padow’s shut its Willow Lawn outlet, but just a few steps away you can dine in mediocre splendor at Panera Bread. The food, the atmosphere and likely the service at the latter will be the same regardless of which Panera you visit across the country. Ditto for every Wal-Mart, Radio Shack and Old Navy. There’s a kind of comfort and security to be found in these places. Not to mention the immense buying power that comes from operating hundreds, if not thousands, of cookie-cutter stores, which keeps prices low. Familiarity — and cheap goods — soothe and reassure. Our forbears of centuries past would be ecstatic at the convenience, the stability and the bargains that come from a Kroger or a Target. These are things we take for granted.

Yet still, there are sacrifices to be had. My father, my brothers and I often would eat at Padow’s when I was a child. We also sometimes ate at McDonald’s. The differences between the two are night and day, perhaps because Padow’s felt more uniquely ours, or at least more uniquely Richmond’s. It was and still is a thing defined by the area in which it operates. Even the etymology is distinct. To say the word “McDonald’s” is uninspiring at best; to say “Padow’s” is to invoke a host of Richmond-centric memories. Padow’s isn’t done yet, of course. Seven locations remain, including the small shop inside City Hall. But after filing for bankruptcy protection late last year, it seems Padow’s has a tough road ahead.

Local business both informs and is informed by a place. It is characterized by its location and, in turn, comes to characterize its location. The same can’t be said for a national or multinational outfit, which seeks not to be defined by a locality but rather to defy the very definition of local. You could shop at the Sam’s Club on Midlothian Turnpike today, tomorrow you could shop at a Sam’s Club in Louisiana or Arizona or Washington, and your experience wouldn’t be markedly or even marginally different.

Obviously, the convenience and affordability offered by national chains allow our dollars to go further, which isn’t exactly a bad thing, especially in these still difficult economic times. Nevertheless, a massive chain store is an oddly disquieting thing. Awash in fluorescent lights, dronish merchandising and assembly-line conveyor belts, it flaunts its blandness. For thousands of years the only thing that came close to such omnipresence was a small handful of religions, with their rituals and formalities and altars largely the same throughout various lands. Now, instead of altars we have massive checkout lines, and it’s unclear if there’s much difference at all. 

To attempt to change such a paradigm can seem incredibly daunting. Big business has an army of stores, employees, suppliers and sundries, and incredible economic power. A local business isn’t so predisposed. By its nature local businesses are smaller, likely more expensive, and their conveniences won’t be as myriad and as widely accessible as a 24-hour superstore. In the middle is the consumer, and the consumer’s dollars. In a very real sense, it is a coin toss whether the retail economy of the future will resemble a landscape of corporate homogeneity or local diversity. 

As actors in the economic world, the public has a remarkable power to decide such an outcome: whether we buy from a global fast-food outfit or a local business will determine how commerce, and thus to a large extent human interaction and human relationships, are done in this state and country. A dollar goes a long way, and there may be a time when it goes a long way toward fully enriching our lives, and the lives of those around us, instead of the bottom line of a handful of multinational conglomerates. Pundits like to claim that the free market makes the decisions. But the market is made only of us. In the end, it is for us to decide. S

Daniel J. Payne is a Richmond-based freelance writer.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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