Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Big Box Stores

I should say a couple things about the town I am living in. Now, I live in a pretty big town --- about the same size as Postdoc City or even a little larger --- and commute to my little community college and its more rural population. And while you could say The Hot Place is the size of an actual city, it is very suburban. Or maybe even exurban, as it is one of those places that has 4 or 5 Starbucks but no movie theater and the library is only open a couple days a week. If I lived in the Bay Area or LA area, this would be a place people commuted from into a Real City for their job and entertainment and didn't bother to build much of a community or "place" where their house was. Except I am not commuting distance from those places or anything much else besides ... uh, we have rocks. Rocks. Some trees, but I'm not going to tell you what kind.

All of this is to say that I live in a big suburb, but not that big of a suburb. This is why it confuses me that the Shrine to Capitalism on the side of town by the riverbed has two of everything. Everything. Often right next to each other, in a way that kinda highlights the stupidity of thinking this is really offering any sort of consumer "choice." We have a Mattress Discounters and a Sleep Train. They are on the same street. We have a PetSmart and a PetCo (where the pets go!) and they have all exactly the same merchandise. We have an Officemax and an Office Depot. a Home Depot and a Lowe's. We have both CostPlus and Pier One, and there is a Bed Bath and Beyond between them. We have a Micheal's and a Joann's Fabric. We have a Target and a Walmart, although that is not as unusual to me. Oddly enough, we have a lone Best Buy. What would be the equivalent of Best Buy?

Seriously, how do these places stay in business? This town is not that big.

It reminds me of that line by Cake: "Some people drink Pepsi; Some people drink Coke; the wacky morning DJ says democracy's a joke."

We do have an older part of town that was the historic part but never really was much of a downtown, and it of course is a wasteland. It is impossible to find a non-chain store or restaurant around here, and no wonder: I'm sure all these chains are tough enough competition on each other and they sell their sign space and shelf space.

It's been interesting, since, as someone who has just moved, I need to buy/replace/fix a lot of stuff. I have had to think about, well, where do I want to shop? in a way that I didn't when I just had to go to the PetSmart as the only option within 30 miles. Doing a lot of shopping all at once, coupled with the fact that I hadn't started work yet and had time to kill and amuse myself by walking through both stores, really made clear to me how small the differences between the two options were. Layout yes, but not really much difference in price or selection.  Like I said, it felt weird.

But it also highlights how much this place is lacking any sense of place. Now, Postdoc City had its problems, and a lot of what gave it a unique sense of place were those same problems, but it had a very nice small-town downtown that people really were fighting hard to bring it back and make it over from a burnt-out post-industrial wasteland. They also had the Southern attitude of getting in your bidness hospitality which gave it much more of a feeling of community than here, where you never see the same people again in your shopping transactions. And, of course, they are all standoffish and politely distant in a very Western way that I grew up with but also coming back find a trifle weird.

I'm sure I will find people to hang out with and do activities that are not shopping-related very soon. But I'm not all that sure what those activities will be. They won't be in town, that's for sure.


Susan said...

Your city is bigger than mine. We have Staples only, pier One but not Cost Plus; Petsmart here, Petco in the next town. We do have both Home Depot and Lowes, as wellas Walmart &Target. Costco, but no Trader Joes (thEy have metrics for population and per capita income that my towm misses.)

What you find in such places is that you may not seethe same people at the same time, but you start seeing people in different places - not where you first ran into them. It's weird.

Bardiac said...

Your town is also bigger than mine.

We have neither Lower's nor Home Depot, but another big box that is evil (as in, the owner got caught dumping toxic waste in his home sewer evil). We have Walmart and Target, the office twins, but none of the others you mention that I've seen.

But yeah, even if we had both competitors, there's little to tell them apart.

Fortunately, we do have a remarkably good restaurant selection of small independent places with good but not too expensive food.

Belle said...

I'd guess that socialization isn't so much going public someplace, but more private, like some one's house or apartment. And that the local cafes & restaurants aren't out of the various neighborhoods. There are probably some ethnic places buried in the appropriate neighborhoods, and unwilling/unable to pay the rents on the Big Store Strip streets.

That's the way it is here in RNC; yes there are the big box stores and the chain restaurants, but they are clustered together. Get into the neighborhoods (which you'd swear aren't there) and you find some tiny little Thai or Guatemalan place with five tables.

Contingent Cassandra said...

It seems like everybody must hang out somewhere (other than Starbucks): church? the local high school football games/other activities? the Elks/VFA hall? Maybe it would help to sit in Starbucks and eavesdrop to see where the other patrons are coming from/going to? Or maybe you need to take up rock climbing (or communing with Rocks, or whatever the local customs for interacting with the local rocks are).

I wonder whether the issue is partly demographic, i.e. the place is mostly geared to some demographic other than yours: families with young children or retirees/empty-nesters or whatever. One demographic that may well be missing that was present in other places you lived is the grad-student one, which, of course, overlaps closely with yours: the young-single-faculty one.

Still, there have got to be at least some people somewhere reasonably near with similar desires and interests, and at least a few venues that cater to them. As Belle says, they're probably just more hidden than you're used to.