clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, November 01, 2004
From a NYT article on the proliferation of chain stores in Britain:

"In the case of Britain, and especially England, there is a huge sense of
identity investment in the image of towns and cities, and the notion that this
sort of bland, gradual effacement of character is taking place has taxed people
at a deep level," said Andrew Simms, policy director for the New Economic
Foundation, an independent economic research organization that published a
report in August called "Clone Town Britain."

"It makes life boring," Mr. Simms added. "It makes our communities boring
places to be. That is one thing that has touched people deeply. People don't
want to live in towns that look all the same. It's dull."

Chain stores make life boring in small towns--say what? Did I miss something, or have towns--of whatever size, really, unless they're New York / London / Tokyo--traditionally been regarded as pretty damn boring anyway? I don't think the sudden presence of one HMV on the high street exactly created this reality. I mean, there are whole swaths of culture pretty much devoted to dealing with this fact. Now, we can have a discussion about whether or not said swaths of culture, which mainly lie within the realms of popular and specifically youth culture, cater to or simply created that fact. If we did, though, I would point out that popular culture was pretty studiously avoiding this idea for a while until some developments I think it's hard to regard as anything other than bottom-up brought this to the fore. There's no denying, c.f. Frank's Conquest of Cool, that this impulse has been commodified, repackaged, etc., but that this not only did happen but is still actively happening is if anything a testament to just how powerful this idea is. This is a real idea that would really occur to people whether Kiss and/or Starbucks were there or not.

I think that if you want to ascribe these phenomenoms--both the spread of chain stores and the prevelence of the my-town-sucks impulse--to anything, it would be the massively increased mobility we now enjoy, which we just simply didn't until very recently. You don't have a desire to drink Starbucks until you have the opportunity to go to where there is a Starbucks. Stores don't have any impetus to improve if people don't know there's anything better. The fact remains that in a non-control economy, local difference is preserved only to the degree that it is, in fact, geographically isolated. As soon as those borders significantly open, as we both see ourselves as less isolated and see what else is out there, local impact becomes less significant. So that's why I think this is not exactly a surprising thing, and why I think restricting the things that cause chain stores to spread would have far more negative effects than the chain stores themselves.

But are the chain stores actually bad? Are they somehow worse for towns than small, locally-owned shops? Well, aesthetically--which is the only case really being made here--I quite simply don't think they are. For some sort of indie-related reason, you might dislike the fact that the coffee shop here is the same as the coffee shop there, but was there really a huge difference between coffeeshops before, or did they actually kinda all look the same anyway? For instance, is there really a culturally significant difference between the monadic, non-chain Chinese food places everywhere and McDonald's? Not really. The only difference is that the non-chains were older, and hey, wait a few years and they'll be just as old, won't they? It's a silly differential for a whole host of reasons, from the fact that we haven't been a bunch of culturally isolated villages for a long time and there have been chains of one kind or another since the industrial revolution, to the fact that this really only has an impact on the high streets or business districts and leaves everything else in the town more or less alone. Plus the point I've made before that it seems odd to make an anti-consumerist argument that's basically "you should be buying stuff from this profit-centered institution rather than that one," but no need to get into that again.

I dunno. Small towns are boring all of a sudden? Were they really, like, exciting before? The boringness of a town seems the whole point--it's precisely that regularity, that continuity, that we desire, that causes us to stay in a place for a period of time. But the settledness of the buildings seems less important than the people or the shape of the overall thing itself. Changing real estate doesn't make a place any less a place any more than it being a town in England, just like all the other towns in England, did. As long as there are spaces between them, they will still exist.