Hooray for Chains

The contrarian essay is a staple of magazine journalism. There's one such essay in the December Atlantic that's of interest to this readership. Virginia Postrel ...
by | December 12, 2006

The contrarian essay is a staple of magazine journalism. There's one such essay in the December Atlantic that's of interest to this readership.

Virginia Postrel examines the usual complaints lodged against chain stores and restaurants -- that they scream of sameness and make the country more boring by making every place look like every other place -- and says phooey.

For one thing, she notes, "Stores don't give places their character. Terrain and weather do." She focuses much of her piece on Chandler, Arizona, a booming suburb that is home to lots of chains, but also to desert skies and "intense sun." It's no trick, she says, to figure out she's in Arizona and not, say, New England, despite the Target and Wal-Mart and Gap and all the rest.

More important than aesthetics, Postrel says, is the fact that chain stores deliver the goods that people want. That's important, because in a boomtown like Chandler it might take years or perhaps decades for entrepreneurs and suppliers to create the kind of choices that are available right away thanks to the expertise of the big chains. "Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals."

And it's locals that matters, Postrel says.

Those of us who travel a fair amount may mourn the fact that the restaurants in downtown Philadelphia or Indianapolis offer us few choices we couldn't find at home. But that's not the point.

"Contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites, most cities don't exist primarily to please tourists. The children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-a-Bear animals are no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis."

One point that I wish Postrel had hit harder is the fact that homogenized shopping options are hardly a new phenomenon. Rutgers University historian Alison Isenberg, in her 2004 book Downtown America, notes that there was even more sameness to shopping in the old days of Kress and Kresge.

You can listen to an NPR interview with Postrel about her essay here.

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