Question;Starting;a Conversation: Respond to ?In Praise of Chain Stores?;Every;well-traveled cosmop?olite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous?the;most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else,? as;the columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose. Boston has the same;stores as Denver, which has the same stores as Charlotte or Seattle or Chicago.;We live in a ?Stepford world,? says Rachel Dresbeck, the author ofInsiders?;Guide to Portland, Oregon. Even Boston?s historicFaneuil Hall, she;complains, is ?dominated by the Gap, Anthropologie, Starbucks, and all the;other usual suspects. Why go anywhere? Every place looks the same.? This;complaint is more than the old worry,datingback to the 1920s, that the big guys;are putting Mom and Pop out of business. Today?s critics focus less on what;isn?t there?Mom and Pop?than on what is. Faneuil Hall actually has plenty of;locally owned businesses, from the Geoclassics store selling minerals and;jewelry, to Pizzeria Regina (?since 1926?). But you do find the same chains;everywhere.;The suburbs;are the worst. Take Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix. AtChandler Fashion Center;the area?s big shopping mall, you?ll find P. F. Chang?s, California Pizza;Kitchen, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and the Cheesecake Factory. Drive along;Chandler?s straight, flat boulevards, and you?ll see Bed Bath & Beyond and;Linens-n-Things, Barnes & Noble and Borders, PetSmart and Petco, Circuit;City and Best Buy, Lowe?s andHome;Depot, CVS and Walgreens. Chandler has the Apple Store and;Pottery Barn, the Gap and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and DSW, and, of course;Target and Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald?s. For people allergic to brands;Chandler must be hell?even without the 110-degree days.;One of the;fastest-growing cities in the country, Chandler is definitely the kind of place;urbanists have in mind as they intone, ?When every place looks the same, there;is no such thing as place anymore.? Like so many towns in America, it has lost;much of its historic character as a farming community. The annualOstrich Festivalstill;honors one traditional product, but these days Chandler raises more;subdivisions and strip malls than ostrich plumes or cotton, another former;staple. Yet it still refutes the common assertion that national chains are a;blight on the landscape, that they?ve turned American towns into an;indistinguishable ?geography of nowhere.?;The first;thing you notice in Chandler is that, as a broad empiricalclaim;the clich? that ?everywhere looks like everywhere else? is obvious nonsense.;Chandler?s land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The;people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with;their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are.;Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the;intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale;pale pink.;Stores don?t;give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do. Familiar;retailers may take some of the discovery out of travel?to the consternation of;journalists looking for obvious local color?but by holding some of the;commercial background constant, chains make it easier to discern the real;differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler;come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry;air cools.;Besides, the;idea that America was once filled with wildly variedbusinessestablishments is largely a myth. Big;cities could, and still can, support more retail niches than small towns. And;in a less competitive national market, there was certainly more variation in;business efficiency?in prices, service, and merchandise quality. But the range;of retailingideasin any given town was rarely that;great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like;every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store, a pharmacy a pharmacy.;Before it became a ubiquitous part of urban life, Starbucks was, in most;American cities, a radically new idea;Chains do;more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot;of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery?the scarce and costly;knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work.;That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming;process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent everynew;businessis a;prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large;range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as;they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get;to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of;exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain.;When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like;Chandler?or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles?didn?t have much in;the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an;innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at;the L.A.DailyNewsdeclared it ?the kind of place every;neighborhood should have.? So what?s wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood;CPKs instead of one or two?;The process;of multiplication is particularly important for fast-growing towns like;Chandler, where rollouts of established stores allow retail variety to expand;as fast as the growing population can supportnew;businesses. I heard the same refrain in Chandler that I?ve;heard in similar boomburgs elsewhere, and for similar reasons. ?It?s got all;the advantages of a small town, in terms of being friendly, but it?s got all;the things of a big town,? says Scott Stephens, who moved from Manhattan Beach;California, in 1998 to work for Motorola. Chains let people in a city of;250,000 enjoy retail amenities once available only in a huge metropolitan;center. At the same time, familiar establishments make it easier for people to;make a home in a new place. When Nissan recently moved its headquarters from;Southern California to Tennessee, an unusually high percentage of its Los;Angeles?area employees accepted the transfer. ?The fact that Starbucks are;everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days,? a rueful Greg Whitney;vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic;Development Corporation, told theLos;Angeles Timesreporter John O?Dell.;Orth Hedrick, aNissanproduct manager, decided he could stay;with the job he loved when he turned off the interstate near Nashville and;realized, ?You could really be Anywhere, U.S.A. There?s a great big regional;shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see;in California. Yet a few miles away you?re in downtown, and there?s lots of local;color, too.?;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. For them, this isn?t tourism, it?s life?the;experiences that create the memories from which the meaning of a place arises;over time. Among Chandler?s most charming sights are thebusiness-casual;dads joining their wives and kids for lunch in the mall food court. The food;isn?t the point, let alone whether it?s from Subway or Dairy Queen. The restaurants;merely provide the props and setting for the family time. When those kids grow;up, they?ll remember the food court as happily as an older generation recalls;the diners and motels of Route 66?not because of the businesses? innate appeal;but because of the memories they evoke.;The contempt;for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were;all that mattered to a city?s character. For many critics, the name on the;store reallyisall that matters. The planning;consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns;and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he;finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a;moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local;activists who oppose chains ?want specialty retail that sells exactly what the;chains sell?the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes;the same brands, even.? You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with;nothing but the name changed, he says, and they?ll love the store. So downtown;stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites;while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials;and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving;business to the suburbs. ?If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the;Gap, if that?s your market?or Payless Shoes?why not?? says an exasperated;Gibbs. ?Why not sell the goods and services people want??;In your writer?s notebook, record your;analysis of Postrel?s essay by responding to the following questions;Postrel?s;argument is more specific and thorough than her title might suggest. What;is her thesis? What does she expect readers to believe or do after reading;her essay?;Postrel?s;introductory paragraphs quote writers and pundits who dislike retail;chains, without disputing them. What purposes do these paragraphs serve in;her essay? Why is it essential for her argument to cite these views early;on?;Who or;what are ?cosmopolites,? and how are they related to readers of The;Atlantic Monthly? According to Postrel, what do their assumptions;about small towns reveal about their social, economic, and geographic;biases?;Postrel;refers to ?place? and ?local color? at several points in her essay. What;do these terms mean? In what ways are their definitions central to her;argument?;According;to Postrel, how might a misplaced hostility to retail chains actually harm;some communities? What specific advantages does she claim these stores;provide, and who benefits from them? What kinds of evidence does she offer;to prove her point?
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