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November 27, 2006

Chain Shopping

In the December issue of The Atlantic, Virginia Postrel sings the praises of chain stores. According to Postrel, chain stores such as Best Buy and Home Depot give shoppers in smaller cities access to the variety of products previously only available in large metropolises. She argues that the spread of chain stores from the coasts into the heartland only offends those coastal snobs who want other parts of the country to look different when they visit. The people who live in those other parts of the country, however, want to have access to the same stuff coastal dwellers get. As she suggests, we here in the Midwest don't appreciate our Starbucks coffee any less just because we know that people in the East, West, and South also have Starbucks.

While critics bemoan the fact that chain stores kill regional distinction, Postrel argues that the economies of scale enjoyed by chain stores actually allow them to offer shoppers more variety. For example, Best Buy can stock more models of refrigerators than the local Mom and Pop appliance store. In terms of hardware, appliances, and even clothing, I couldn't agree more with Postrel's premise. I don't think our country would be any less vibrant if everyone had the same microwave, the same door hinges, or even the same clothing. And, as Postrel points out, even these cookie-cutter stores aim to blend in with whatever area they move to by reflecting local architectural styles.

The problem with chains, however, is when they reach monopsony status, as Wal-Mart has done, giving them the power to dictate which products get produced. Again, in terms of refrigerators or blue jeans, I could care less. When bookstores achieve monopsonies, however, we get de facto censorship. Today, publishers are much less likely to publish books if they think Borders or Barnes and Noble won't stock them. Postrel, however, doesn't acknowledge this issue. In fact, she writes that

When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler [Arizona]--or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles--didn't have much in the way of bookstores.
While I do agree that Borders (and especially Amazon) has made books much more accessible to most Americans, it certainly wasn't the first bookstore. Los Angeles had some really fantastic bookstores before Borders began to expand. We had Midnight Special, which couldn't keep up with the big competitiors; Dutton's, which is still squeaking by; and Vroman's, an independent bookstore that looks and feels much like the large chains. Even here in Ann Arbor, Borders isn't our only choice: Shaman Drum is an age-old fixture of downtown Ann Arbor that manages to stay in business through an intimate relationship with the University of Michigan.

Postrel accurately notes that "stores don't give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do." David argued, however, that food is a big part of culture, and that chain restaurants (which Postrel also celebrates), undermine local culture. Postrel claims that, before chain restaurants, "one deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one," which simply isn't true. A diner in Santa Fe, for example, would probably feature many more items containing green chiles than a diner in Boston, which might offer a certain baked bean dish. A pizza restaurant in Chicago would produce a completely different pie than a pizza restaurant in New York.

While I agree with the main premise of Postrel's article, I'm frustrated at how her insistence on the beneficence of chain stores blinds her to the products for which chain stores are not the ideal vehicles. It seems that, particularly among Atlantic readers, there is so much animosity toward chains that Postrel felt she had to exclude the anti-chain argument completely in order to write a convincing pro-chain piece. Her position might have been more credible, however, had she been able to capture these shades of gray.

Posted by eklanche at November 27, 2006 10:50 AM


I remember when they were considering putting a Border's in Davis, CA when I was student there ten years ago. At that time, the community was all up in arms because they feared that that evil chain would ultimately chase out all the independent booksellers in town. When I went back there in March '05, the Border's was doing brisk business and the local bookshops - Bogey's Books and The Next Chapter - were still in business. (Two had gone under but they weren't that good anyway - pity, as I still had $7.50 in store credit at one!) Not every chain runs its business like Wal-Mart and, it can be argued, that chains like Border's in their own way "support" used-book stores by assuring a constant supply of "already-read" materials that people trade in. Dawn Treader's and Dave's Books have been here forever and they seem to be doing quite well (at least they're solvent) despite the Big Behemoth down on Liberty and Maynard.

Posted by: khgarner at November 28, 2006 12:49 AM

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