January 02, 2002
Big vs small

The sensible and oft-cited Virginia Postrel touches on the debate between Large Soulless Chain Bookstores and Small Touchy-Feely Mom and Pop Bookstores. A recent article in The Atlantic came out firmly in favor of the large chains. Postrel cites a Glenn Reynolds piece that goes into this some more.

I sent Postrel an email about this, in which I point out that it all depends on what kind of bookstore you're talking about. I'm fortunate that Houston has an excellent mystery/thriller/crime bookstore called Murder By The Book. It has everything you could want from a small bookstore - a staff that knows you and your tastes, used books and book searches, author signings, a book club, etc etc etc. Of course, being a small independent, it can't give you what the bigs can, namely discount prices. I consider this to be a fine tradeoff for the service, and I frequent them often.

Postrel was kind enough to reply, and agreed that small bookstores do serve a valuable place in the market as niche and specialty providers. It's just that most of them haven't admitted this, and so they try futilely to compete on the same terms as the majors.

This got me to thinking about the big versus small debate in general. It's easy to trash the Starbuckses of the world (and as a non-coffee drinker, it's a freebie for me), but let's face it: If the experience of going to them were so gloomy and impersonal, they'd have failed long ago. I grew up on Staten Island, New York, which 20-30 years ago was very much a small town, despite being part of New York City. My family and I did most of our personal consuming at small shops since there were no chains (outside of the occasional fast food joint) to speak of. Do I, a defender of the little guys, still do my business this way nowadays? Let's see. By the way, most of the businesses from my youth were within walking distance, even for a kid:

  1. Grocery stores Back when I was very young, my mother would walk to a small grocer about a block away. They were on a main street and had maybe ten parking spaces in back. They were out of business before we moved in 1977, by which time my mom was a committed coupon-clipping chain-store shopper. Which I am as well. The only small grocers you see nowadays are Stop'n'Gos and 7-11s. I have no desire to turn the clock back on this one.

  2. Pharmacies This one's a win for the little guy. We got all our meds at Brennan's Pharmacy a few blocks away. Mr. Brennan knew us well, always had what we needed, and even let us run a tab. Modern chains are no less expensive, don't carry anything I ever need that Brennan's didn't, and are likely to get our order wrong or lose it. I wish I had a Brennan's available to me now. No contest.

  3. Pubs Another win for the little guy, though not by as big a margin. My dad's softball team would celebrate after games at Lee's and Denino's, where the pizza was as much a reason to go as the beer. Or, if food was not as important, at Duffy's. I still go to small pubs, often for the music, but I have no qualms about going to a big-name sports bar like BW3.

  4. Book stores Mom was a devoted fan of a used-paperback store near the Pathmark she shopped at. My folks live in Portland now, where they can indulge any indie tastes they may have and still find a buttload of books at Powell's. I think Dad goes mostly to debate the hippie wannabees who hand out leaflets outside. There's an irony here in that we all used to shop at Barnes and Nobles when it was just one store on 18th Street. I sometimes forget to lump them with the Evil Soulless Chains because of that. Call this a tie.

  5. Convenience stores Sometimes all you need is a quart of milk, and when we did, we walked to Zullo's down the street. I'd never heard of 7-11 or Stop'n'Go until I came to Texas to attend college. Nowadays I don't smoke, I don't drink beer from cans, I don't play the lottery, and I like to use my gas card for fillups, so unless I need to buy a bag of ice, I seldom use convenience stores. Of course, lots of gas stations are convenience stores now, so the line gets blurred. Call it another tie.

So, I suppose I live my principles when it's easy and convenient for me to do so. If that ain't American, I don't know what is.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 02, 2002 to Bidness | TrackBack