June 15, 2009

Big Box Bitch

I’m the first to admit that Amazon.com is like the 8th wonder of the modern world and I love poking around Home Depot, but as a society I think we have to rage against the Big Box stores. They are soul-sucking.

There are many things I hate about this continent I live in (car culture, suburbs, garbage) but today I think I’ll just bitch about shopping.

I think the draw with box stores and malls is convenience, familiarity and security. Parking is a definite benefit. But it’s not news to anybody that malls and stores like Wall-Mart suck the vitality out of the established down town areas in many a small town or city. This can be witnessed in Premium T’s post of June 11.

It can be witnessed in my home town of 5,000. Townsfolk think the arrival of the monolithic stores signify success. But never a thought is given to the vibrancy of the old main streets with their wealth of architecture and history. It used to be in my hometown you could walk for 5 minutes and be at the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread. Now there is nothing left to do but take the car and drive out to the conglomeration of box stores, while the old main street itself could soon be housing 10-pin bowling.

It seems to me that the proliferation of big box stores is akin to the airbrushing of North America. Unique differences are gone - as if a patchwork quilt has been drained of all colour. Independent stores are going the way of the Dodo. The sameness of these tumorous outcroppings of Pottery Barns and Barnes & Nobles will certainly make clones of us all.

I feel that quality of life has given in to so-called convenience. And we should rage against it.

We’ve all had those “Aha” moments when we find a really neat second-hand book store, or funky restaurant, or a stretch of art galleries or a hidden café. Those discoveries make us pause and think “Hey, life’s pretty wonderful.” We can live like that all the time. Let’s put our money into our neighbourhoods and our neighbourhoods will pay us back with quality of life.

Some of you might think I sound ostentatious but I like to shop like a European. I have the good fortune to live in a very vibrant neighbourhood and I can go with my shopping bag up to my top road and grab cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables, coffee, meat and bring them home to stock up my little fridge. In a couple of days I'll do the same. It may sound poncy but it’s anything but. My eco-footprint is very small. I haven’t used the car. I’ve met people on the street, made some local shop keepers happy. I’ve seen posters for things happening in the neighbourhood. I’ve had the experience of hearing at least two languages different from my own.

A lot of people don’t have the luxury of such a great neighbourhood, or the surplus of time that I have. But a quick Google tells me that 80% of North Americans live in urban settings. We don’t all have to get in the car on Saturday and shop till we drop at The Gap, or H & M, or Banana Republic. We should shun Cineplexes and East Side Marios for the local Rep theatre and the Polish café around the corner.

I say shop locally; shop small; shop independent. What say you?

photo of French Market:www.franceguide.com


Susan/GG said...

Oh I'm sure you don't need to hear my echoes. I hate those stores. We're trying to stop the building of one right now: in the middle of a neighborhood. It's a store that I actually like & it would be smaller-scale. But still, there's no room. The traffic is already some of the worst in the DC-area. It has a dubious rep as "one of the 10 worst, most dangerous intersections..."Being a pedestrian in that nightmare is just that. So it's awful for all.

I don't have & never have had a car...I once wanted one, I do not now. I do, as a European, pay a larger percentage of my close-to-poverty disability income (at moment) on food, etc. However, I am under no illusion (& really never have been) as to what I "need" & what I "want."

I'm always shocked when friends have asked me along on occasion to one of these places. Sure, I've bought the occasional large size of something-or-other, but much less than I ever thought I would. It has not gone unnoticed by self & reporters that people tend to load up on so much stuff that they do not save money.

Also, let me rant, please, about the effect that these artificially-low prices have on those in other countries who work as slaves (sometimes officially as slaves) to produce a lot of the goods. Just everyone watch out what kind of sugar, chocolate, etc. you buy. You know exactly what I mean. Too expensive, the other kind? I think not if I can figure out how to buy it. And it's called: use less of it.

We've been warned for years & years that these types of stores were going to bite us in the rear: in the destruction of our cities, towns, villages, jobs, the environment, a way of life. It's been done. The only thing to do now is, as you say, rage against it & try to reclaim some small amt. of space. These places are also really awful employers. Terrible.

Due to health problems, I might consider buying from amazon now & again. But when I link a book nowadays in a post, I try very hard to do so to a local bookstore or a review.

I'm lucky to live in an area that is known for local-shopping movement. There are even coupons to do so...Until this is seen as beneficial to all, unfortunately, those of us who are called 'poncy' (we use different names down here but I know what you mean), will have to deal with it.

Most people who have grown up shopping a la N.America get all het up, until & unless they see it differently. Or do so. Unfortunately, trips overseas are out of so many people's reach (or aspiration) that they don't know how to recreate the experience. Or they have Paris-London-Rome hotel vacation in mind...that won't do it.

Someone said to me recently, "well that's well & good for you" (they know nothing of my situation & assumed for some weird reason that I'd lived in Paris....no, Strasbourg & it was smaller then) but some of us...blah blah blah. Very threatened, she was. The thing is, she brought it up. I don't go around handing out shop local stuff. It was at a party the other night...I think living in what she (& others in the local & national media) calls "The People's Republic of..." is getting her down. There are a lot of real self-righteous well-off jerks here, for sure. I got a full dose yesterday at a festival. But I'm not one of them. So she can go load up her car full of crap, it still isn't going to solve whatever it is that's 'eating' her. You know?

Of course, you do.


jillian-anne said...

Fantastic post. This is the drawback of globalisation. I hate wandering through the city and seeing an independent music store taken over by a chain or travelling overseas and seeing the same chain stores, what happened to cultural diversity?

The influx of big box stores offers convenience and (some say) lower prices, I have to admit that I will buy my cereal for $5 at woolworths rather than $8 at the deli.

I guess I can't really complain about diminishing diversity while actively endorsing the process?! A complex issue.

Thank you for this post, it got me thinking.

Brian Miller said...

i wish that more down towns would revitalize. it used to be i would like nothing mroe that to take a stroll down Mani St. and see the sites, meet people along the way...what a great outing. but now they all seem to have died. did the big box crush them, or did we forget about them all for the sake of convenience?

Premium T. said...

Thanks for the link to my blog! When P. and I got married, I moved out to the suburbs, where we live in his house. It's an absolutely beautiful setting -- feels like I live in a park -- but I miss the availability of a small co-op grocery store, coffee shops and restaurants that were all within walking distance of my urban home.

K. said...

I'm with you. Of course, Amazon and Starbucks are local businesses around these parts. However, I go out of my way to buy books at Elliott Bay Book Company.

CDs have become kind of a problem. The local store is not as as good as it used to be. All stores are overpriced compared to iTunes and Amazon downloads. Except for jazz and classical, the added sound quality of a CD is not enough to justify paying an extra $5-$9. What to do?

BTW, one of the joys of hardware stores is running into a young family with little boys. To a three-year old boy, the only places closer to heaven than a hardware store are Disneyland and the LaBrea tar pits.

sallymandy said...

Really torn about this. I detest big box stores, especially Walmart, and buy from local businesses whenever I can. Yet in the current economic climate I make the occasional trip to Malwart to stock up on stuff like school supplies, sunscreen, and underwear. It's just WAY cheaper and this helps us financially.

Luckily my town has a thriving downtown business sector as well as a big box zone on the other side of town. I guess we're large enough to support both. I know that many smaller towns are not so fortunate. It's a problem.

Tina Tarnoff said...

I absolutely agree with you. I am lucky and fortunate to live in San Francisco, North Beach neighborhood, where small family oriented shops, vintage stores and little deli's are all around me. And people are fighting to keep it that way and to keep the huge horrible stores out. Great post! xoxo

Ima Wizer said...

Hazel, this is such a good post! I DO try to buy locally and I have never even been in a Wal-Mart.
I would give anything to live in a small town again. Meanwhile I shop at local grocery stores and book stores and stay away from the Home Depots and the like. I also try to frequent the farmer's markets.

Rouchswalwe said...

Hear! Hear!

gretchen said...

amen, clever pup. i will never "join" costco and pay for a membership. my friends who shop there, which is fine, their choice, find it entertaining, shoptainment. almost to see what kind of crazy stuff they can get for what kind of crazy price. i just don't care for it. it sort of sickens me, to be honest. i didn't realize this choice could be part of a local movement, but you are right, it is. there is so much hateful fear mongering out there right now, i think it is time to take a strong stand for what's good in all aspects of our lives. being strategic with our spending is important for so many reasons. thanks for bringing this to light today.

The Clever Pup said...

Ah Costco. I forgot about them.

Surely there must be a false economy in buying at these places. In the long run, the benefits of buying one-time quality items must outweigh the repeated purchases of cheap items. It all evens out it the end.

Megan said...

I could write an entire week of posts about this subject. Maybe I will!

I agree with you, by the way...

Leah said...

I agree too, oh so heartily. My husband and I talk about this all the time, how much the landscape of the country has changed into this icky capitalist homogeneity.

Excellent rant.

K. said...

Costco gives me anxiety attacks. However, they do have a reputation for being the anti-Walmart as far as wages and benefits are concerned.

Ima, one of the terrible problems that small towns have is the death grip Walmart has one the business districts. That's why Vermont fought so hard to keep it out.

orange sugar home said...

your analogy of North America being air-brushed is so very true and frightening! That's why I always encourage folks to shop for furniture etc at thrift and antique stores because of the quality, history and personality of the pieces. Those items go into our homes and kind of make us who we are.....excellent topic. Rebel!

Rinkly Rimes said...

Believe me, things aren't so different in the UK and they're certainly the same here in Australia. We're lucky because. although we're within walking distance of a big store, we're also a few steps from a little old-fashioned shop where we can 'pop in'. It's more expensive, but more of a pleasure. However, this very shop is threatened by the planned building of a large store opposite 'when the downturn ends'. So long live the Credit Crunch! Haven't you noticed how popular Markets are these days? I think there's a general yearning for 'the real thing'.

corine said...

I could not agree more. I hate them, those soul-sucking wastelands... and i shop there all the time. But I draw the line at wall-mart, which I'm boycotting without being sure of exactly why.

Ima Wizer said...

K - and that's why I don't shop there!

nonizamboni said...

Here, here! Another lament of mine, having grown up in a small town. Now I have to drive to the little street with the shops that delight me. Oh, the irony! And I appreciated 'the airbrushing of North America'--so true.
Today, I rebel. Thanks for the gentle nudge.

The Clever Pup said...

We have Walmart in Canada for heaven's sake. Talk about Jonesing.

Canada has the problem of really figuring out who we are. We know we aren't Americans and we're not British and when multinationals move in it feels like we are
USA(subsection A1)

Canada was based on the the trade of beaver fur. I'm not kidding. The Hudson's Bay Company moved into Canada from England about 350 years ago and started forts and settlements where they gathered pelts. In time, the Hudson's Bay Company was basically a department store. Which was sold to an American. Can't believe it.

Rachel Fox said...

I live in a small Scottish town which still has some small local shops in its beautiful high street. We have bakers, butchers, cafes, a bookshop of sorts (nothing great), some other interesting little shops. I don't know how long they'll last as the supermarkets and online retailers march on (already there's no fruit and veg shop outside the local supermarkets) but I do my best to visit all that's there...while it's there.

Poetikat said...

Hear! Hear! Brava CP! (I'm not really here, but if I were, I'd tell you that I detest shopping malls with a passion that rivals a Greenpeacer confronting a whaling boat!)


California Girl said...

This goes for big "little" chains too. Recently read that Dunkin' Donuts is planning to open 10,000 new locations this year through next. TEN THOUSAND! I mean, how much coffee can anyone drink?

RedCurlGirl said...

being from a small town, i know the importance of supporting local business when i can and that's what i always try to do. besides, i only go to the walmarts and costcos of the world when i have to...mainly because i hate crowds...because ultimately, the issue is that i hate people haha

BloomingPink said...

Great post.

Delia said...

Amen to the end, sister! I don't blame people for wanting to save money, but if you're going to spend a little extra to get that Coach purse or Manolo heels (which women of ALL income levels seem insistent on owning, regardless of the ridiculous price tag) - why can't you also spend a little extra at your local stores? Do we HAVE to get our groceries, dog food, small appliances, underwear and an oil change all in one stop?
RAGE is right! Rage, Rage against the dying of the center of town!!

Fifi Flowers said...

That photo is FABULOUS!!!