February 16, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Cold City

I often mourn for yesterday. Though I might be looking back through an idealized lens of nostalgia, in so many ways it seems like the world of yesterday was slower, simpler, more serene. The modern world has brought us many conveniences: supermarkets, superstores, super-sized fast food meals. In virtually any city in America, you can drive to a shopping center ringed with gigantic warehouse-sized stores and find everything you need. The time saved allows you to maintain the already frenetic pace of your busy life, and the money saved lets you afford a pound of Starbucks Caffe Verona instead of Folgers. Is it worth it?

There's no need to discuss the homogenization of such chain superstores. I think it's clear to everyone how devoid of personality such stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Staples are. We know what we lost when we allowed such chains to suffocate the "mom-n-pop" shops, but we caved in to the Faustian tradeoff of convenience and cheapness for personality and integrity. Now we reap the consequences every time we fight for a parking space in a super-sized parking lot; argue with a sales clerk who couldn't care less; or wait for 20 minutes in one cashier's line while 29 other cash registers sit idle.

We really don't save much time or money, at least not enough to make it worth what it has done to our society. Chain stores do offer other intangibles not often found at small independents, such as no-questions-asked return/refund policies. But so often such policies are abused by people purchasing an item, using it for a few days and returning it. Chain stores also offer consistency; if you know what one offers, you know what they all offer. But the other side of that coin means that what one doesn't carry, neither do any of the others.

When one considers such retail clones in the context of the hectic pace of modern life, it becomes a chicken-or-the-egg question which was the result of the other. More likely, both phenomena fed on each other in a downwardly spiraling negative feedback loop. As life became more busy, chain superstores became more attractive. As such stores became more common, we filled what little time we saved with even more activity. Now, the two forces together have become a whirlwind.

As I have observed (and experienced) the increasingly busy pace of life in modern America, one thought has remained a comfort: that at least the aptly-named Old World has maintained its quaint traditions and ways of life. When I visited Italy two years ago, the narrow streets were still filled with "mom-n-pop" stores and restaurants. America may be doomed, but the world still has hope.

But alas, as we've done with our pop culture, we've now exported our retail lifestyle. The chain store phenomenon is sweeping across Europe, and Italy is only its latest victim. That quintessential Italian icon, the mom-n-pop food shop where you can buy a baguette or a panino, is falling before the onslaught of the supermarket, just as the American icon—the "general store"—did long ago.

Rome is becoming "a cold city," said grocer Antonio Tiberi in the article which prompted me to write this column. I know all too well what he means. Temperatures have plummeted here in America over the last 20 years, and I fear they'll never rise again.


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Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Daily Chuckle:

Death is Nature's way of saying "slow down."

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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2/15: Man-Eaters of Tsavo
2/14: Valentine Gems
2/13: Grab Bag
2/12: The End is Near
2/11: And the Winner Is...
2/10: Exploration is Risky Business
2/9: Staphylococcus
2/8: Morning Cup of Kofi
2/7: Game Over
2/6: The Eagle Never Landed
2/5: Pope: Potter No Problem
2/4: Time for Another Rewrite
2/3: A Matter of Opinions
2/2: Suicidal Bravado
2/1: Godspeed, Columbia

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