by Edward Shanahan
A somewhat vaguely worded petition is circulating or posted in various
Northampton businesses, including my own. It urges city officials
"to cease negotiations" with Borders Bookstores and Staples Office
Supply Stores, which are reported to be tenants for the former Hill
and Dale Mall on King Street.
Furthermore, the petition asks the city "to support instead, the
myriad of independent bookstores, office supply stores, and cafes
in Northampton and the surrounding area."
It is unclear from the petition precisely what form of "support"
the city might or can provide, or what role the city should play
in "finding a more appropriate use for the proposed site of these
A strip shopping mall on King Street, however decrepit it might
be at the moment, is not an inappropriate location for major retailers,
whose stock in trade is high-quality merchandise.
Still, I support the petition, even if it only keeps alive the debate
over big versus small, local versus outsider, independent versus
franchise or conglomerate.
That is a debate that did not go on with sufficient vigor many years
ago it should have - when the big boys began the process of all
but reducing this entire country to one large shopping center where
every town or city of whatever size can offer its citizens the same
identical drug store, hardware store, restaurant, tire outlet, muffler
shop, computer and electronics store, supermarket, coffee shop or
cafe, movie theater complex, department store, bank, donut shop
or bagel bakery, paint store, book store, or nursery that is available
in every other town or city.
The whole point of chains, franchising, and strip malls is to do
away with differences and provide the same choices to everyone,
everywhere. It is also the way the marketplace works - people demand
larger stores, purportedly low prices, so-called free parking, and
round-the-clock shopping opportunities.
So what if that means the end of the corner grocery, the neighborhood
pharmacy, or the local bakery, or the family hardware store. The
marketplace sets the rules and the market requires more franchises,
more chains, larger conglomerates. This consolidation of markets
has been going on for a long time, with only scattered public comment
or protest and certainly no government action to slow down takeovers
and mergers and combinations. The concept of the marketplace has
been elevated to the position of king and it rules.
And it is not only in the retail sector that mergers and consolidations
Consider to whom you send your monthly utility bills. New England
Telephone, Massachusetts Electric, Continental Cable, Bay State
Gas? No way. Each month, as my little form of protest, I make my
checks payable to the order of the following: Conglomerate Grid
(for electricity), Criminal Bell (for long distance), again Criminal
Cable which is owned by Criminal Bell (for cable and Internet access),
Conglomerate Gas (for heat and hot water), and Conglomerate Bell
(for local telephone phone service).
Of course, the unstated goal of consolidating utility markets and
combining and homogenizing retail outlets is to create an eventual
monopoly where there will be only one choice for the consumer for
particular products and services. At that point, the 2,500-store
Starbucks chain with another 2,000 outlets on the way can charge
$5 for a cup of coffee and all of you who just loved to sit around
those spuriously cheery coffee emporiums become not customers but
This growth of an imperial corporate economy did not occur in a
vacuum, it required the assent of the consuming public, which did
not understand how its long-term best interests were being squandered
on the altar of the marketplace. And now we are so far down the
conglomerate road, it is impossible to turn back.
Many years ago - could it have been more than 20 - I wrote a column
in the local newspaper calling attention to the uniqueness of downtown
Florence and how many goods and services were available at some
20 local, independent establishments. I said it was not necessary
to travel at all in quest of baked goods, paint, flowers, liquor,
hammers and nails, clothing, gasoline, insurance, a bank, pizza,
drugs, a hair cut or permanent, health care, postage stamps, groceries,
thread, jewelry, a diner, or health care.
And over the last 25 years not much has changed in downtown Florence.
Some stores fallen by the wayside, but others have replaced them.
Except for the filling stations, and the Cumberland Farms, Friendly's
and a Subway, Florence is franchise and chain-free It even has a
used bookstore now, which was conspicuously absent from the scene
back in the 1970s and 80s.
Thus, as a result of bad location or good luck, Florence avoided
the fate of most every other business center, and remains today
the way others would prefer their retail districts to be if they
still had a choice. Think about that.