Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Is Bigger Still Better?

Haven't we learned one single thing? Is it really true that Steven Rattner, the journalist turned investor turned car czar, favors auto megastores as the future of America's car sales industry? Is it true, as I was told by a Buick dealer who's been told that despite 21 years of showing a profit, his franchise won't be renewed, and by the head of the NYS Automobile Dealers Association, that the future road map calls for the end of the Mom and Pop car dealerships?

Where I live, there are a number of little car dealerships snuggled into small towns. I'm sure they don't do a ton of volume, but they've got great reputations and their customers come back time and time again.

I've driven through areas with mega auto dealerships. It's like the Sam's Club of cars...rows upon rows upon rows of shiny vehicles, bought and paid for by the dealer, who has thrown on all kinds of options to help pay for the crushing overhead of having a mile wide parking lot.

Mom and Pop businesses are what's missing in America 2009. Mega grocery chains, box stores, cavernous hardware chains have driven out many small business owners. There is no personal connection, there is no sense of community. Sure, you'll recognize a couple of the people who work there. They'll try to be helpful. You'll appreciate it. But will you think, "Wow, that Big Box Store sure is a great place. I'd gladly pay a couple of dollars more to keep them here!" Nope. They've got no loyalty to you and vice versa.

Contrast that with how you feel toward the truly local businesses near you. We've got Kevin, the guy at the meat store. I'm a vegetarian but I still think he's great. He's always involved in our community, always cooking up a new plan to create activities for the kids or raise money for a good cause. Our local grocery store isn't as cheap as the mega store a couple of miles down the road. But it feels comfortable; it feels like they care whether we shop there or not. They offer sales when they can.

I measure it all against a place I thought was paradise when I was a kid.

Let me tell you about Cherry Valley, New York. I never lived there, but I spent most every summer there and we got to know people pretty well. It's a little town - a little village off a quiet highway in Central New York. When I was a kid, there was an ancient A&P grocery store, Rury's market, a pharmacist, and a general store.

Mr. Mackey was the druggist. He was a nice old guy who'd spent his whole life in this Andy of Mayberry town and knew everyone there. When I got stung by a mystery insect and swelled up like a turnip, he calmly handed my mother an antihistamine. When I turned my ankle, he sympathetically offered OTC painkillers and a pair of crutches. When he retired, the drug store closed. There hasn't been a pharmacist there in years.

The A&P was nothing the company would later be willing to claim. It was in an old wooden building with a massive front porch and you had to roll the tiny carts around poles and hang on lest the warped floors carry them off into a row of dusty canned peaches. But the lady at the old metal register knew where everything could be found and she always had a piece of stale candy handy for a grubby little kid who'd managed not to careen into a display of crackers.

Rury's Market was just a few doors away. A small red building with a wooden screen door that had a very satisfactory slam, it was great fun to stop in for a loaf of bread or a jar of grape jelly. There was always the chance to someone would ask Mr. Rury for something on top of a stack of fifty foot high shelves (remember, I was a kid at the time) and I'd get to see him climb the little wooden ladder and extend the long pole with the metal grabbers on the end. Ha! Another successful catch!

The Friendly Corner Store was the place for candy. Lots of candy. I remember the lady behind the counter always wanted to know how long we were up for, what we'd been doing, how old I was...she was very friendly indeed.

All of these businesses were within the space of one block. A stroll of another block would take you to Robert Lafler's plumbing supply store or Joe Shipway's lumber yard.

Joe Shipway, even when he was a million years old himself, used to climb into his ancient Chevrolet and drive food out to the town's shut-ins.

Nothing is left except Rury's. It's all been replaced by larger stores about a twenty minute drive away. There's a convenience store in town. There are a couple of businesses - but the bedrock stores of small villages are gone, replaced by monster chain stores in bigger towns.

Didn't AIG teach us anything? Is anyone noticing that it's the small town banks that aren't in trouble?

We keep talking about preserving small town values while destroying what helped create the communities we love.

Bigger isn't always better.

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