December 03, 2003

chain links

On our long ride north from Los Angeles to Cambria last week, we passed through town after town in the dark, with long stretches of little but moonlight shining on the water to our left. It felt a little spooky sometimes, like riding through a dreamscape.

Then we got to Oxnard, the first big town up the coast. Civilization, as punctuated by – what else? – big shopping malls with chain stores. Our car sped past huge signs for The Gap, Home Depot, Cost Plus… you know the drill. Walk through any mall and most main streets in the country and you’ll see Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Old Navy, Pier One Imports, Eddie Bauer, KB Toys, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and on and on. You could even picture the logos and the store décor as you read through that list, couldn’t you? It was odd, though, driving past those logos on a moonlit night an hour or so into our journey through the quiet. It felt very much like we’d traveled so far only to find ourselves back where we’d started, like poor Alice running with the Red Queen.

I could rant about the mallification of America (and the rest of the industrialized world, to a somewhat lesser extent), about how it smashes individuality and small manufacturers, how it stamps out quirks in favor of lowest common denominator, generically pleasing mass produced objects that appeal to the largest population spread, but I won’t. Even though I do hate all that. Even though it’s one of the things I like so much about Cambria, that they’ve outlawed chain stores in their little town, that if you shop for clothes, chances are you’ll find something you’ve never seen before. The town’s two bookstores have their own local flavor and slant, as do all the artisan glass and other tchotchka stores lining Burton and Main. Even the Cookie Crock isn’t a cookie cutter duplicate of every other supermarket in a hundred mile radius.

I like that. No, I love it. I spent more money than I had on clothes at the New Moon boutique because they fit my style so much better than the preppy clothes I find everywhere else and there will never be a New Moon opening up at a mall near me. Unlike the mall that just opened near me at Sunset and Vine, a cavernous, unfinished mass of concrete that only has two stores so far. New stores? Interesting stores, with unique finds on every rack? Um. No. Borders and Bed, Bath and Beyond. All that effort, all that construction (years, it took) and we end up with the exact same stores I can find just two miles to the southwest.

It’s easy to condemn the huge chains, but they’re a seductive poison. Even a pleasant poison. I like the towels at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I like their linens. We’ve bought ceiling fans (blue! glass! pretty!) and kitchen faucets (shiny! sleek! functional!) at Home Depot, and the selection there beats the pants off its local predecessor, Builders Emporium. Sometimes these chains are actually, y’know, good. And there’s an unexpected side effect: these big regional/national/international stores become something we can share. If I say I bought a pair of jeans at The Gap and I adore them, you can go there and try them on too. Even if you live in New York. Or Seattle. Or Baton Rouge. If someone on an online forum says she found a great bookcase at Cost Plus, I can go check it out and maybe buy some too. We live farther apart these days, at least my friends do and I suspect yours do too. It’s nice to still be able to talk shopping. That sounds superficial when I say it that way, but I don’t think it is. Toni can help me decorate my house from two thousand miles away, I can help my mother shop for a car from four thousand miles away. It means we're more completely in each other's lives. The internet -- websites, email, AIM – that all plays a part, but so in their odd way do the ubiquitous chains.

We took a rest stop on our way up the coast. Damian had to pee. We drove through the largest outdoor mall I’ve ever seen; the stores were islands in the midst of a vast parking lot ocean. Big islands. We pulled up to the Office Depot island, went inside. As we walked through the store past rows of inkjet paper and fancy waste paper baskets, I felt a kind of strange awe at the vastness of the place, at the ultimate familiarity of it.

I wonder if that’s why the chains have caught on so big. It’s not just about business practices. It’s about comfort. In a world so confusing, sometimes it’s nice to find familiar places wherever you go, as if the world is just one big town. It’s less intimidating that way.

I’m still against the spread of mall-fed homogeneity, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not quite as simple as that, is it?

Posted by Tamar at December 3, 2003 10:37 PM