I didn’t notice the signs at first. I took my daughter to my favorite supermarket today, and between gathering her and the canvas bags, and finding a cart with a working strap, I never saw the signs.
The first sign was in front of the bank, a regional bank with a desk at this small community market. It was literally a whiteboard sign, with the going interest rates and "We are open for business as usual" written at the bottom. What could that mean?
There were no bananas, which I found very strange. The shelf of dried fruit was badly picked over, the salad bar was closed, and around the corner I saw a completely bare shelf where the orange juice should be, with a printed sign: 25% off everything. As I looked around, the signs became obvious. There was even one right in front of me at the dried fruit.
"Are you renovating?" I asked a worker.
"No, we’re closing." she answered somberly.
And then to my surprise, my eyes watered.
Was I really crying over the loss of a supermarket? Well, not really. There’s a lot more to it. Most people in America lost their local grocery stores a long time ago. If you try to buy everything locally, from independent stores, you’ll find that a few categories are now impossible.
Office supplies, for instance. Baby products. Clothing stores. It is a rare community that has a local pharmacy these days. These categories have long ago been taken over by national conglomerates, before most people noticed. Your supermarket is likely a foreign-owned regional chain at the very least.
Unlike the local general store of yore, these are not businesses. They are Wall Street revenue plays designed to funnel cash out of the town and into the pockets of global shareholders. When they land on your town, think of them as a giant vacuum hose taking away local capital and opportunity.
Everyone knows the service quality suffers when the local hardware co-op is closed to make way for a Home Depot. Who hasn’t searched the orange labyrinth for a specialized plumbing part, knowing that the guy behind the counter at the local store that closed last year could have put it in your hand in under a minute?
The ‘mom-&-pops’ can never compete with the enormous scale of global retail. And as we lose them, we lose our communities. We lose ourselves. We lose hope. The ‘little guys’ get that.
The Atlantic Supermarket in Reading, MA, got it. The people who worked there cared about what they were doing. They knew the position their store held in its community and in our nation: the last of a breed.
And after this week, they’re gone.
I stopped tolerating the nonsense that this is just about competition, that it ‘just happens’. We’re not living through a standard, run-of-the-mill economic downturn. This was done on purpose by the people who run our economy.
Until late September, when it finally became clear to everyone, with the exception of John McCain, that we were witnessing a true catastrophe, it was still okay to believe that all will be well if we just sit tight. But it’s crap. All will not be well.
Even now, most Americans probably feel that upward mobility is still possible, even as their own fortunes careen headlong in the opposite direction. Even though our own communities seem to be devastated, and half of our friends and relatives are underemployed, somewhere there must be a community that is still strong, where people are doing well. 47% voted for John McCain, and they must live somewhere.
Well, we all live somewhere. If we want to save our somewheres, we have no choice but to abandon the wild hunt for the best price. Our nation is about much more than a constant race for the latest gadget from the biggest box store. The big boxes don’t provide the best opportunities for careers and entrepreneurship. The malls are not just a blight on our landscape, but on our civilization.
Who will rebuild our Main Streets if we can't even keep what we have?
Update [2008-11-30 14:6:1 by socialist butterfly]: This is the obligatory "Thank You!" for my maiden trip to the rec list. As a once-entrepreneur myself, I know how painful it is when an owner-manager has to announce, a few days before Thanksgiving, that this is it. Faceless CEOs from faraway places never feel that.