Tuesday, December 12, 2006


VIRGINIA POSTREL has been one of my favorite writers and cultural commentators for many years now; she clearly and unapologetically says many of the things I’ve been thinking but can’t quite muster up the conviction or reason to say. Her latest column in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY demolishes many of the flimsy arguments against chain stores, which have always struck me as being far more about the aesthetics of the complainer than the true harm/costs that come from the stores themselves. It’s always been fun for me to watch the way a particular kind of San Franciscan reacts to a local business that all of a sudden does really well – growing, say, from one store to two to three, to opening branches in other cities, to becoming a national phenomenon. Examples include WILLIAMS-SONOMA, JAMBA JUICE and even AMOEBA MUSIC. It’s all well & good when it’s your favorite store/restaurant, but when the unwashed hoards start appreciating the same things you do, look out everyone: hypocrisy is coming. This phenomenon is not unique to chain stores, as we all know, it’s ingrained in many music freaks and even in beer snobs. Maybe it’s a human thing. Still, it’s nice to have our biases systematically unwound from time to time – good on ya, Virginia!


Anonymous said...

Peet's is one place I'm happy to see expanding. I would die without their tea.

Anonymous said...

I read this article rather causally, and this is somewhat of a hit and run post, but as someone who loves to shop, chain stores ARE awful. I have no problem with the idea of a great business concept being spread nationwide. But there is a tendency of chain stores to squeeze out unique, successful businesses that did lend character to a city or shopping district if you will. When I get a moment, I will try to expand upon this. As just one example, several of the college "strips" that, to me, were meccas of cool and eclectic shopping have been transformed into fairly bland and uninteresting by the infusion of these wonderful chain stores. Yes, this reflects my individual aesthetics and fairly esoteric tastes, but I think it is more than that. More later.

Anonymous said...

Wrong and wronger. Gotta say, Jay, that you write very well and you've got well-formed taste (this isn't congratulating you on having my good taste, because our tastes differ greatly), but your socio-political stuff leaves me scratching my head. Guiliani? You got sold a bill of goods on that one -- dude's a clown. Of course, he and chain stores go together like hand and glove; both are perfect for the fat, hair-dyed suburbanites that Lee Ving depicted all those years ago. Some chains do what they do very well. Peet's is a great example. Most chains, however, happily cater exclusively to middlebrow tastes and care fuck-all about those of us who dig more marginal stuff. Barnes & Noble, for example. If you want to find Fred Siegel's rim-job of your boy Rudy, I'm sure B&N carries it. But if you want a decent poetry selection, forget it. Cody's had one but, well, Cody's is gone. And Amoeba will gone in 5 years or less, I'd wager. Between all those people who actively sanction free downloads, even for artists that they like and respect and who aren't getting rich (ahem), to the Lexus driving Walnut Creek mom who buys e-40 for her kids at B&N, Amoeba is doomed. I'll be sad to see it go, because I enjoy going there and wandering the stacks, seeing shit that I wouldn't otherwise find, interweb or no interweb. The thing is, the profit margins for places like Amoeba and Cody's are small, and it doesn't take much to drive them under. Chain stores do that. And independents tend to treat their employees better than chains (I know, I know -- not always), have more knowledgable staff, and keep their money in the community. And don't have dorky uniforms/dress codes, don't drug test their employees, don't engage in the shadow nanny state tactics that corporate america uses to intrude into employees lives. But, hey, they rarely have convenient parking.

Jay H. said...

One of the regrettable hallmarks of those of us who listen to more-challenging music or read more-challenging prose or watch more-challenging film is an all-too-frequent us vs. them mentality that leads to comments like “fat, hair-dyed suburbanites”, dripping with condescension for people who prefer a different lifestyle. As if your “alternative” lifestyle, which I’m sure you’ve fought hard for, deserves nothing but praise for being so bold and nonconformist. Bo-ring! I find it especially rich that a mega-chain like PEET’S COFFEE (hundreds of identical-looking stores all over the globe, with employees all wearing the same aprons & nametags) remains a hero to latte liberals, who seem to see a differentiator that others like me can’t, outside of slightly darker coffee than their more well-known competitor.

One repeated theme in any social commentary I’ll write on here is that those of us with our fantastic, daring tastes in cultural artifacts are full of the same human frailties and biases as anyone else, and deserve no more or less respect than & attention than the soccer mom, the day laborer, the programmer, the left-wing activist, the recent immigrant and the banker deserve. Maybe I’ll gin up a tagline: “Come for the reviews of weird CDs and records, stay for the lecture! You’ll learn to love it!”. In any event, anonymous, you didn’t have to travel far to prove my point. You know that if you and others support them, independent stores will still be there, making you and your pals very happy. If your favorite stores define themselves too narrowly, and maybe even miss a bit of the cash coming from fat people or people who dye their hair or who live in a suburb, then they might not be there, and will lose some ground in favor of someone who figured it out a little better. I recommend taking a step back & thinking about what keeps Amoeba or Cody’s or Fusetron Sound or Home Depot or Starbucks or Wal-Mart alive. It’s your money, baby! If you prefer a barter system or a People’s Park-style “free box”, then let’s hear about it!

Anonymous said...

Jay: sorry. I didn't realize that the suburbanites for whom I am hoarily dripping with condescension were so accepting of difference. I guess I'm just wildly intolerant. Me and Sinclair Lewis. And as for condescending, I actually have a fair understanding of how the market works even w/o an MBA, thanks. I appreciate yer edumactional primer, but your righteous anger blinded you to my real point -- that there are valid and good reasons for people who care, rightly or wrongly, for music, books, movies, etc., that fall outside the mainstream to spend their dollars at Amoeba and not B&N. And here's some handy info: I supported Cody's by buying tons of books there. But it still went under. I support Amoeba by buying tons of music there. But it's still going to go under. And articles like the Atlantic's or yours simple justify that. By the way, I read the Atlantic piece. It reminded me of something that Santiago Durango reportedly said after a trip to Europe: "The middle class is the same everywhere." You and Virginia evidently embrace that. I find it stultifying. If in your simple-minded equation that makes me a snob, so be it.

By the way, Peet's just makes real good coffee. It's better than Starbuck because it's strong but not overroasted.

"the latte liberal"

Anonymous said...

P.s. I'm just pulling your leg, Jay. I'm not really a "latte liberal." I'm an "iced coffee ironist," using "irony" as Richard Rorty does. And speaking of irony, but this time in the Alanis sense, isn't it ironic that you take me to task for paraphrasing Mr. Ving's nasty remarks about lovely suburbanites with approval, and then pull out a hackneyed Coulterism like "latte liberal." C'mon Jay, you can do better. But I am duly reminded that bon mots, like satire, are not well received in hastily written missives. Your criticisms of my characterization remind me of yet another remark stuck in my memory. Richard Dawkins, writing to a high-profile biologist who disavowed evolution, said, "You, sir, must be a knave or fool. And I understand your not a fool." My remark -- as you must have surely understood -- was a summary comment on the oppresive conformism of the American middle class. You can deny the phenomenon if you want to continue your brave role as the defender of subdivision america, but I'll stick with my guns that it's real (that's where the Sinclair Lewis reference comes in. If you haven't read it, "Main Street" is a great novel). To reduce that phenomenon to a paranoid "us vs. them" delusion is either dumb or dishonest. I don't consider myself better than anyone because I own the Loud Machine 5000 7". But I do know that a lot of people consider my love of, say, Anthony Braxton to be "weird." I know because they've told me. And "weird" here does not mean "weird in a good way." As for your rhetorical device of trying to set me up as "bold," etc., that was not dumb, just dishonest. I didn't say it, I didn't imply it. You simply made a baseless ad homineim attack. Awesome.

Anonymous said...

Alright, I'm back. Having re-read the article and Jay's comments above, let me expand on my prior remarks.

Jay, as I see it, you disdain those who would heap contempt on chain stores because this contempt is more a reflection of cultural snobbery than any problems inherent with chain stores themselves. Postrel somewhat touches on this view when she says, "contempt for chains represents a brand obsessed view of place as if store names were all that mattered to a cities' character." I agree that chain stores have their place and should not be derided because they do not cater to my admittedly esoteric tastes. But by the same token, chain stores are not repositories of virtue, either.

Postrel, however, goes far beyond this sentiment, trying to sell chain stores as having benefits that simply don't exist. For example, "chains make it easier to discern real differences that define a place." Huh? You mean the presence of the same chain stores in different communities help us differentiate these communities because our eyes are opened to the different ways lives are led in these communities? Bull.

Postrel also posits that chain stores benefit those who live outside major metropolitan areas because it provides the range of product choices only available to those who live in big cities. I have my doubts about this claim, and Postrel cannot cite a concrete example of this phenomena. I would say that more likely what is happening is that businesses are locating to states and areas where land is cheaper, taxes are lower, etc., and the chain stores simply follow. They are simply following the money.

Postrel dismisses as "myth" that America was filled with "wildly varied business establishments": "One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one." Of course, she cites nothing to support this sweeping generalization. What she seems to saying is that chain stores are simply replacing bland fungible businesses that didn't stick out anyway. Whatever.

I don't have a problem with chain stores because they don't cater to my tastes. I have a problem with chain stores coming in and ruining parts of a city or community that I love. Chain stores are purely profit driven. Fine, this is not a charity, and even the funky off beat places I like are out to make a buck. However, the chains tend to make decisions divorced from any practical considerations on what effect it has on the community.

For example, in Houston there is a small shopping area outside of River Oaks that is about three or four city blocks. It is filled with mostly small niche retail businesses, although there are two Starbucks literally across the street from each other. All of the shopping centers in the area are one story and have art deco features that are generally appealing. These shopping centers are anchored by the River Oaks theater, a 50-plus year-old movie theater that shows independent films. It leaked out that the owner of the land is basically going to demolish one of the shopping centers and build a Barnes & Noble super store in its place. The River Oaks theater is also planned to be demo'd to make way for a high rise luxury apartment complex. When this happens, this part of Houston's character will change -- contrary to Postrel's assertion -- and not for the better.

It's not as though these store fronts were empty and unloved. To the contrary, they are fully leased and have plenty of customers. The problem is chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble, can pay more because they sense that they can capitalize on the cache developed over the years by the small businesses that they are, in effect, sweeping aside.

Contrary to Postrel's argument, I selected where I lived in Houston precisely because of its character, which included a distinct absence of cookie-cutter chain retail stores. My everpresent fear is that chain stores are going to "discover" my part of town and screw it up but good.

Jay H. said...

Anonymous, I have zero anger (righteous or otherwise) toward you, nor did I attack you. You're part of a grand conversation that leads to deeper undestanding & universal truths, on whose side still TBD. I'm certain that more descriptive and less-hackneyed terms could have been used besides "latte liberal", but don't you find it just a little bit ironic or strange that you'll stand up for one coffee chain - the one YOU happen to like - and then make a series of blanket statements condemning chain stores in general? That's the height of hypocrisy to me. When someone puts up a general argument against stores that have more than one location that makes ANY sense to me, and is not counteracted by the outsized gains that come to others from low-prices, large selections or general product availability that wasn't there before, then I'll admit that argument has its merits and say so on my site.

You might find the delight that a 15-year-old girl finds at the mall an example of "oppressive conformism", but just who's being oppressed here? You? Your sense of aesthetics? I know she doesn't think she is. And when she and her friends find your musical choices "weird", are you seriously surprised or even bothered by it? I'd recommend you wear it as a badge of honor and not worry what "suburbanites" and "the middle class" (talk about hackneyed!) have to say about you.

Also, whining about "ad hominem attacks" (oh brother) undercuts your otherwise well-contended points. After a litany of pokes at "middlebrow" tastes, Lexus-driving moms, fat people etc. and setting up your love of poetry and Anthony Braxton as a counterpoint, you come off as more than a little insecure. That's nothing new, you hear it all the time, but getting CALLED on it isn't the same thing as being attacked, OK?

Anonymous said...

Wow. First, you refuse to admit that your earlier comment was a personal attack on me and then you compound it by calling me insecure? "As if your “alternative” lifestyle, which I’m sure you’ve fought hard for, deserves nothing but praise for being so bold and nonconformist. Bo-ring!" Who's "you" here, Jay? Not me? I'm confused. But if you are fat or drive a Lexus, I sincerely apologize for inadvertently attacking you. I'm fat, for the record, although I do drive a VW.

As for "middlebrow," it wasn't meant (and is not) a pejorative term. Just using the high, middle and lowbrow distinctions used for years by cultural critics (see, e.g., Arthur Danto -- uh oh, another sign of my insecurity). Your kneejerk reaction that I think middlebrow is per se negative is a comment on you, not me. Indeed critics like Danto worked hard to eliminate the idea that highbrow is the only brow worth pursuing. Your dismissal of "middle class" as a descriptive is either a joke or stunningly naive. I'm gathering that in Jay's world such terms are just unfair stereotypes.

And my comments were intended to respond to your praise of Postrel's cheerleading for chains by suggesting reasons why independent businesses are important, not a "blanket condemnation." I think simply that independent businesses will not continue to exist if people who should value what they provide disregard them. I agree with "spills" comments regarding the effects chains have on established communities, and your assertion that a chain store's lower prices, etc. are invariably positive is actually the subject of rigorous dispute by economists.

Your rebuttal to my comments about oppressive conformism is a hopeless muddle. Simply put, chain stores further cultural homogenization and that homogenization furthers the culture of conformity. These aren't new ideas and they're hardly ridiculous. And I'm still trying to figure out how you dragged a 15 year old girl into it.

But really, the most depressing thing about all this is your tone. "The height of hypocrisy"? Yeah, Jay, I believe that any store with more than one location is a "chain" in the sense that Postrel's article discusses "chains." Because I'm an idiot. You constantly set up straw man arguments that I haven't made and then knock them down with gusto. Big deal. I just expected more.

Anonymous said...

Right on to anonymous and spills. Well stated.

You couldn't be more wrong, Jay. I detailed similar thoughts/arguments on Agony Shorthand a while back, so I won't waste everyone's time rehashing them again here. To some extent this almost reflects a theological difference of opinion between us and there is little point in arguing over it. You and I want different things from the world and value things differently (price and convenience on the one hand vs. selection, loyalty, and community diversity, on the other). Notwithstanding our mutually strong feelings, I don't believe there is a black and white, right and wrong answer here (again, quasi-theological). I know that won't stop you from banging this drum, but enough with the over-the-top, holier than thou lectures...

Jay H. said...

John, asking me to not “lecture” is asking me to not write about my opinions, opinions which you’ve been happily reading for 3 years now. I think you’re mistaken in calling it holier-than-thou; if it truly comes across that way then I’m even a shittier writer than I thought. Honestly, I’ve known for well over 15 years how often parts of my world view clashes with many of my alterna-contemporaries, which gives me that much more impetus to throw my ideas out there in hopes someone will appreciate it or think about an idea differently – just like anyone else who shares an opinion in a newspaper or a blog. It’s no different with music, you just happen to agree with many of those. As with music or film, my views on social issues & politics continue to evolve, but like you, I came to some core principles a long time ago that I’d love it if more people shared. Like I said to anonymous, the internet is the new town square, and it’s where many opinion-shaping debates (“the grand conversation”) are taking place right now. Give me a chance to stir it up a bit, and I’ll do my best to do it without too much holier-than-thou disrespect for you & your beliefs.

Jay H. said...

I'd also characterize this particular theological debate a little differently than you, just for the record - for you it's

"price and convenience on the one hand vs. selection, loyalty, and community diversity, on the other"

I'd say it's more

“Support for choices made by individuals, whether actually made at the individual level or in a collective sense of thousands of choices, vs. support for artificially hindering or restricting that choice due to aesthetics or broader social concerns”.

Or to simplify, it's what some might call support for a free market vs. support for a less-than-entirely-free market.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

I could give a rat's ass about coffee chains, but Wal-Mart makes me throw up in my mouth.

But here's a side issue - why can't coffee drinkers shut the fuck up about their stupid beverage? It's nowhere near as interesting as beer. I'd like to see the coffee industry investigated by some intrepid reporter. I suspect that either the caffeine level has been upped drastically or some sort of genetic engineering has been done to make the shit more addictive. Coffee drinkers these days are more devoted than meth heads or heroin addicts. Something nefarious is going on, and I'll bet Rudy Giuliani has something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

"Support for choices made by individuals, whether actually made at the individual level or in a collective sense of thousands of choices, vs. support for artificially hindering or restricting that choice due to aesthetics or broader social concerns"

Right, but the way I see it, in what you call the "free market" is there not artifical hindering and restricting going on? Market manipulation out the wazoo by careful and selective behind-the-scenes deregulation? Arcane zoning amendments that give free passes to certain kinds of businesses while hindering others? Unfathomable hedge funds gamesmanship and insider trading? Phalanxes of lawyers exploiting loopholes? The power of a seven-figure advertising budget versus a four-figure?

I would be a lot more sympathetic to the pro free market stance if I felt that a true free market actually existed. I just don't see it being all about individual choice, more like corporate choice and individual choice caught in a feedback loop that has very little to do with actual necessity.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

Rudy G and Hilary are identical twins, except her dick is bigger than his is.

Scott Soriano said...

Jay - You are sitting in a very nice place in the world, where chain stores dot rather than dominate the landscape. One of the many reasons I love San Francisco is the abundance of small businesses. Come back to the valley and experience chain culture and you will have a very different out look. Watch the architecture of Midtown Sacramento change to meet the needs of chain stores and the assault becomes as aesthetic as it does economic. There has been a loss of charm and funkiness to my town thanks to both chain stores and gentrification (they actually go hand in hand). And with that loss of charm and funkiness has been a lack of tolerance for people who make noise, i.e. the bands making the music you love so much. A coffee or sub sandwich made exactly the same way every single time I buy it is a lame trade off for a vibrant and interesting town center. My weekends in San Francisco are the only thing that keeps me from hating this fucking town.

Anonymous said...


You're a real hoot - a true tickle-me-Elmo of the angry left. Any mention of a topic/person/idea vaguely right of center generates instant paroxysms of moral indignation, self righteousness or just a slew of pejoratives.

I know, I know, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and (insert violent handwringing) SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

I know, sean, I know. I wish I could be as calm as all those right-wing voices out there. Tell me again how if Al Gore had been president we'd all be speaking Arabic now.

I know, I know, Western Civilization is in grave danger! Third World countries like Iraq are wicked scary! And giving up habeas corpus and making torture official US policy are NECESSARY. Close your eyes and think about Jesus and lowering marginal tax rates and maybe we'll all survive.

I'm not wringing my hands. I'm just slapping your quivering right-wing wrist.

Anonymous said...

Part of it is a desire to retain some claim to regionalism. Chains look the same everywhere, deliver the exact same experience. They make life dull and monotonous, as if the only thing that matters is convenience at the expense of everything else in a commercial exchange. Chains also concentrate politcal and economic power into fewer and fewer hands, which is anti-democratic in my opinion. Don't forget, it was the 'nation of shopkeepers' that kickedd Napolean's ass. Think I'm gonna die for Lowe's, think again colonel.

Plus, if you want to get all brand-identity about it, folks come to San Francisco to escape their bland, identikit hometowns with shrinking homegrown biz or culture, not to come to a hilly version of Tulsa.

I always liked local 'chains', places that nailed a local demographic and were locally-identified, usually family owned cofffee shops or hardware stores with a half dozen branches, that kind of thing. Mini-chains are cool. National chains are fascist.

The first chain that allows its' local managers some autonomy over presentation and local marketing/advertising is gonna do reeeeeeeeal good, watch.

Ryan W.

Jay H. said...

Ryan, I don’t dispute the logic of some of your points, but when that regional chain in San Francisco that you love so much – which exists, like any other business, to make money – decides that they want to open a branch in Los Angeles or Fresno or San Jose, have they crossed some imaginary tipping point in your mind that now puts them closer to the “fascist” national chains? The logic of such a notion totally escapes me. My stance (and Postrel’s stance) is that when you have a truly free market for goods and services and movement, chains that don’t work in a Tulsa or a Fresno won’t open there (let’s say Saks or Neiman-Marcus or Sur La Table), because they’ll die. Cities like Tulsa and Fresno, by awarding licenses & locations to chain stores that they think their citizen will want, run the risk that some of their most dynamic and creative taxpaying residents will ultimately leave for places like San Francisco as a result. Or ,on the contrary, find that the chain stores bring them the goods & services they want, are actually a blessing for them, and therefore deepen their desire to stay. See, it’s hard for us city folk to imagine such a positive reaction to a new Wal-Mart or Bed, Bath & Beyond opening in our towns, but all over the country there are people who are extremely satisfied by just that. And their tastes & desires and motivators are no more or less relevant than mine or yours. They’re personal. I’ve made my choice about what sort of environment I want to live in, but why would anyone want to deny someone else theirs?

Anonymous said...

You think life is made up of billions of purely individual decisions, all made rationally in some sort of vacuum. I know that's the heart of the 'ol 'clearing-the-system' market analysis of how goods and services function in the classic biz school market analysis they taught me and you in econ class, but you also know that there are huge holes in that theory. People make irrational choices, almost constantly, and emotions and culture and religion and peer pressure are all part of that, not just the mere exercising of their buying power. It is never as clear as that, unless you are operating on a purely subsistance level. Then, as in North Korea say, this grass will do just fine for din din, thanks.

So, your annoyance seems based on the fact that I refuse to accept the utter rationality of Pottery Barn's existance, because others have voted with their dollars and welcomed an outlet. Well, I didn't, and never have voted with my dollar for Pottery Barn, but since my dollar is 'outvoted' I lose. And since places like the 'Barn, being supported by central banks who LOVE to loan to them as opposed to some local family-owned place with less 'growth potential' (gotta grow or die, right? merely making a reasonable profit is LOSERville to those who demand, DEMAND a certain profit % be maintained) then Pottery Barn can use their market leverage to pay higher rent, get more financial backing and thus cheaper wholesale prices and drive out the locals. Thus, my choices end up getting limited by the market power of a larger and larger commercial entity (fill in chain name here). See, I ain't a Friedman guy, no, I'm a J. K. Galbraith man. I don't believe they have much use for Galbraith at the University of Chicago except as a target on their private club's dartboard.

The totally free market you describe as being in effect will never ever happen. It's just an academic exercise, a swooned-for 'utopia'. People with power will never 'rationally' do anything that would hurt their market strength, so they will do everything in thier power to maintain position, 'choice' be damned. Corporations are NOT interested in competition, they want to eliminate competition and establish monopolies wherever they can, history has shown this repeatedly. As you say, a corporation's primary motivation is making a profit, and whether this is an outgrowth of customer satisfaction is something of an afterthought. They are much more interested in normalizing a high rate of return. Just ask the folks who hold the reins on their lines of credit.

Those little towns with a brand new Bed Bath 'N Beyond. They USED to have a local alternative, but that probably died in the early or mid 80s and then there was nothing. Until capital built up to such an extent that the hugely profitable units of a chain operation can subsidize expansion of a unit into a new territory. I would suspect that alot of these stores are almost speculative in nature, and if central control determines that they are not delivering the proper % of return then the people's 'choice' will be unceramoniously shut down and replaced with some dollar store full of plastic crap made in Vietnam. My favorite bowling alley in SF, the enormously popular Japantown Bowl, gutted so a developer could make more $ per sq. foot with a bunch of ugly condos. I 'voted' with plenty of dollars at that place. 10 games in a row one night, my thumb was swollen for days, not too rational I admit.

So I think giant corporations are fascistic, I'll bet you probably feel zoning laws are the same deal.

One person's convenience is my version of hell on earth. Just saying...

Ryan W.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

Jay, uh, "why would anyone want to deny someone else" the right to live in an environment they like? For profit, of course. Do you seriously think people in small towns are doing handstands unanimously (or even close) when a Wal-Mart opens in their town? Do you think Wal-Mart is above using nasty tactics in order to conquer a new market?

Do you know what happens in a small market the MINUTE a Wal-Mart seems to be moving in? Capital dries up for a variety of local businesses. Banks don't want to lend to the walking dead.

Ryan's right - the multi-national corporations turn free market truisms upside down. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a full-scale antitrust investigation of a few of these companies took place.