Probably everyone has had the experience of driving through a strip mall area and recognizing that it is Anywhere and Nowhere. I used to travel frequently for work, and on quite a few occasions I had moments of forgetting where I was while driving—Georgia, Minnesota, New York State? Many locations were completely interchangeable. My rental car (Oh, yes, I remember getting this one at MSP) was a better clue than the stores, restaurants and banks around me.
For writing inspiration, unless our subject is suburban ennui, these places are full of stuff, in an excessive consumption, American kind of way, and at the same time devoid of story. It is troubling for an environment where many people, including children who might grow up wanting to be writers, spend the majority of their time…and it is a sign of deeper problems. What is behind the lack of inspiration is the strip’s complete absence of character, its emptiness of things that matter, its dearth of spaces that invite real being together or meaningful exchange. There is a reason so many great stories are set in small towns or distinctive neighborhoods and locales: there is more here to write about, more to enrich the experience of life. And these two are inseparable.
The way things are going, though, singular communities could eventually be just a memory. Even “storied” Manhattan is becoming full of chain stores and restaurants. People are catching on to the fact that putting up Walmarts and Starbucks is not necessarily good for their community, but it keeps happening because those corporations convince decision makers that they bring “new” jobs and money. National chains even persuade local governments to give them huge incentives—favors that put the existing, local stores at a disadvantage. The chains not only become financial vampires; they also create blight with their disposable, cookie cutter buildings; they erase history and inhibit real community engagement.
Let’s take an imaginary office supply store, Staple Gun, coming to town as an example. There are, of course, already stationery stores—often ones that have been part of the community for fifty or a hundred years. Does anyone really think that the arrival of Staple Gun is going to create more demand for office supplies than before? No, they are simply going to take the customers from Smith Stationery, which has been “Serving Yourtown since 1938.” Chances are, Staple Gun’s corporate strategy will also include starting out with lowball prices—until they put Smith’s out of business. Meanwhile, the corporate store has changed a lot more than where people shop. It has shifted the whole value exchange and started the community bloodletting.
Because when your neighbor owned the stationery store, if half a million dollars were spent there in a year, that money was plowed right back into the local economy. The owners used a local accountant, graphic designer and bank. The employees of Smith Stationery bought groceries and hired painters and went to the dentist around town. But now that you are shopping at Staple Gun, an absentee-owned store, as much as half the money you spend is being siphoned off to remote designers, accountants and of course shareholders, who could care less about what happens to you and your town or suburb.
Your neighbors from the old stationery store are now working at the “newly created jobs” at Staple Gun, which really only replace the jobs they are taking away. And since their workers are now making minimum wage, they are spending less on groceries, they cannot afford to paint the house, and they no longer go to the dentist. Hopefully, you are not the dentist. Or the house painter. Or the grocer. Now multiply this scenario to represent a whole strip made up of chain banks, restaurants and stores siphoning the money out of a town. The place is bleeding. Really.
“’Money is like blood. It needs to keep moving around to keep the economy going,’ says New Economics Foundation’s David Boyle, noting that when money is spent elsewhere—at big supermarkets, non-locally owned utilities and other services such as on-line retailers—’it flows out, like a wound.’” People in towns that are being bled will spend less money because they have less, and when they do, the chain’s profits will drop, making the store…pick up and leave.
What do I have to say to that? Hallelujah! Maybe we do have a chance to reclaim the character, independence and money that our communities once had by creating local environments that are protective of place and friendlier to our neighbors’ businesses than to absentee-owned chains. I believe that writers, with our sensitivity to the importance of local flavor for writing and for life itself, can be an incredibly valuable voice in keeping our communities distinctive and strong. Buying local also goes a long way.
I am fortunate that in my Andersonville, Chicago neighborhood, building owners and residents are very pro-local, to the point of rejecting chains. The abundance of unique, local businesses run by passionate owners is one reason the neighborhood is among the city’s most popular. The more writers can help articulate and illustrate why communities with character must be protected from domination by corporate stores, the better our chances are of preserving the best places to seed stories.