Monday, January 30, 2006

Wal-Martification

Leonard Pitts.

You remember Mom and Pop, right? Mr. and Mrs. Small Business? Used to own that diner down the street, that coffee shop around the corner, that record store across town? Used to run that bookstore with the long aisles of dusty paperbacks where you could while away a rainy afternoon browsing to your heart's content. They gave the neighborhood personality. They gave it soul.

Then somebody bought them out, knocked down the building and put up a Wal-Mart. Or a Starbucks. Or a box store with low prices, huge selection, and all the soul of tuna fish on white bread. And one by one those storied places, yours and mine, winked out of existence. . .

This is not the business page, I know. But this lament is not for lost business. Rather, it's for a loss of – here's that word again – soul. Meaning the things that once made our communities unique.

Drive across the country these days and “unique” is not a word that comes often to mind. Increasingly, Richmond could be Rochester could be Dayton could be Duluth. We shop at cookie-cutter stores in cookie-cutter malls and eat at cookie-cutter restaurants, not because the food is special but because it is familiar.

A former colleague called it the Wal-Martification of America. It's as good a term as any for the process by which we become uniform. And regionalisms – that thing they say only in Cincy, that funky bookstore in lower Manhattan, that dish you can get only in that little dive in Jackson – become fewer and farther between.

The homogenization of retail America is undeniable, and probably unstoppable. I suspect that by the time my kids grow up, the local hardware store will no longer exist and a trip to Home Depot will be required even for a 20 cent bolt.