The un-localing

Dear Rebecca:

There’s been a lot of lamenting over the years about the corporatization of America — how, these days, every town looks just like another because they have all the same stores: The same Wal-Marts, the same McDonalds, the same Starbucks, and so on.

In smaller towns, particularly, the “Wal-Mart effect” has been much lamented, because of its tendency to open up, drive all the other retail businesses out of business, and thus become the only source of (cheap) employment and (cheaper) goods in a community. Defenders of the store could say that the company was providing those goods at a price the community desired; critics looked at hollowed-out Main Streets and lamented the loss of local ownership and local culture. (They also usually took a heavy toll on advertising in local papers, something I witnessed personally.)

Turns out that wasn’t the end of the story, though. Welcome to the “retail apocalypse.

J.C. Penney used to be one of three anchor stores at the Shenango Valley Mall. Then, one day last March, both Sears and Macy’s shut down, becoming two of the more than 500 department stores that closed across the country in 2017. Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the “retail apocalypse.” In Hermitage, employees called it “the funeral,” because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. “I’m so sorry,” they said. “I’m in shock.” “What are you going to do?” “What am I going to do?”

The old culprit was Wal-Mart. The new culprit? Amazon. People are increasingly buying online for a variety of reasons — convenience, expense, etc. But the result is going to do more damage to the kinds of communities you and I grew up in than Wal-Mart and its ilk ever did.

For all their manifold sins, those big corporations had a local presence — they employed local people and paid local taxes. Online outlets only rarely have the former and intermittently do the later (though that could change soon.) The Wal-Marts of the world may have displaced the previous business culture, but they replaced it with something tangible: Bricks, mortar, and people. Places that employed your neighbors, where you might run into them.

The online outlets offer no such advantages.

That’s not to dismiss the advantages they do offer. But the advantages they offer belong mostly to the realm of economics, while the disruption they do ripple through the social and cultural realms in ways I think aren’t entirely desirable.

And hey: I’m guilty. I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber.

We all have individual choices to make about whether to engage in the behaviors that are bringing this un-local world upon us. And we also have to decide if the cultural and social ramifications of un-localing require some kind of government response. The markets can give us cheaper widgets. They can’t always give us better communities.

Yours in commerce,

One comment

  1. Joel and Rebecca,

    As it happens, over the holiday I’ve been reading John B. Jackson’s work, _Discovering the Vernacular Landscape_, which addresses the various ways in which people interact with physical space. I like it very much, and it has much to give the reader to think about. Its subject (so far) is that there are two kinds of landscapes: the inhabited (which is equivalent to what we think of as “place”); and the political (for Jackson, “landscape” is always indicative of human presence, rather than absence). As I read your post, though, I was reminded that Jackson’s book was published in 1984: thus, his book doesn’t address virtual landscapes, which owe nothing to topography or tradition but are wholly reliant on infrastructures that don’t respect physical or political boundaries. (For that matter, neither does he address the Wal-Mart-ization of small towns, which only began around the time he was writing his book.)

    I’m baby-wrangling just now, so this will be a sketchy response. But Joel is right: Amazon owes nothing to topography, much less the citizens who work in its warehouses. Its goal is to make the mainlining of goods to its customers as frictionless as possible–thus, it cares nothing about community, broadly defined. In this new space of the Internet, if social media is its public square, Amazon aspires to be its sole merchant.


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