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Chain Stores Are Part of Civil Society Too

I recently reviewed the book “Alienated America” by Washington Examiner editor Timothy Carney, and I’d like to return to one of the observations he made in a section titled “Walmart’s America.”

Tim is worried about the twin forces of centralization (in both business and government) and atomization. It may seem paradoxical to imagine both happening simultaneously, but when all of the forces that affect your life seem to be playing out above your head, it can make you feel less connected to the people you see around you every day. If I’m a puppet of forces operating out of New York and Washington, D.C., why bother connecting with my neighbors?

But how does economic centralization specifically make people less connected to their neighborhoods? Tim writes that “The growth of Big Business and the consolidation of industry, like other forces of centralization, tend to erode civil society and local communities.” He goes on to reference the much-studied concept of “third places,” locations that are neither someone’s home nor their workplace, but where they can spend time socializing with friends and neighbors. Tim then states that “centralization is a chief culprit in the disappearance of these [third] places,” lamenting that “[b]ig chains replace local places, and their economic efficiency doesn’t allow for lingering, local variety, or much personality at all.”  

I’d like to push back on that assumption, because, in my experience, that’s often not the case. Plenty of chain restaurants, bars, coffee shops, hair salons, and other stores allow customers to linger and socialize. More importantly, however, just because a retail location is part of a large chain doesn’t make it not—or even any less—a part of the community. Especially when it is a franchise location, it’s likely to have a local owner and manager, making it scarcely different from any other “independent” business down the street.

When I lived in College Park, Maryland, for example, the Jason’s Deli (275 locations in 28 states) regularly offered its space up for community meetings and events. These included meetings I participated in for the College Park Community Foundation and the “District I Coffee Club” of the Prince George’s County Police Department, which is a forum for neighbors to discuss matters of public safety with local law enforcement officers. I was recently at a La Madeleine (85 locations across the U.S.) in Bethesda, Maryland where my husband and I ran into a friend from our church who was there with her book club, happily lingering over coffee as they discussed their latest selection. When I go to my local Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Washington D.C., I see not only neighbors chatting and relaxing, but many students from nearby American University studying and writing on their laptops for long periods of time.

In all of these places, and countless others around the country, managers are not cracking the whip at their customers due to the crushing demands of corporate efficiency. They are, and always have been, encouraging people to use their locations as study halls, community gathering spots, and post-championship celebration locations. There seem to be a lot of people who assume that corporate-affiliated retail locations are going to be less friendly or welcoming that sole proprietorships, but I’ve certainly never found that to be the case.

Moreover, because they’re part of a national network of similar businesses, chain and franchised locations can tap into resources beyond their own neighborhood. The International Franchise Association, for example, runs “Franchising Gives Back,” which helps promote charitable giving and community leadership among their members. As IFA points out, chain stores sponsor Little League teams, donate to homeless shelters, and organize marches for cancer research just like many independent businesses do. With the help of the larger companies that they’re affiliated with, they can be even more effective.

Certainly, when a location is at its busiest (like a coffee shop just before the beginning of a workday), it will give off less of a “relax and linger” vibe, but that’s true of any retail business, chain or otherwise. For the most of the day, however, most retail locations are nowhere near capacity, and are happy to have customers stay awhile. Not only do companies like Starbucks, now maligned for its alleged corporate blandness, serve as valuable places for “third place”-style interactions, they are increasingly focusing their brand on exactly that experience.

Last night, for example, I was at the Starbucks in Spring Valley, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood northwest of Georgetown. They proudly featured a community bulletin board, crowded with flyers, photos, job opportunities, tutoring offers, and even hand-written notes. Does your kid want to attend a soccer camp this summer? Are you looking for a meditation class for beginners? Would you like to attend a fundraiser/dance party for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network featuring live bands, vintage clothes, and tarot readings? The Spring Valley Starbucks bulletin board has you covered.

Last night it also featured this note, transcribed below.

Starbucks

A transitional place for students like me to prosper into something great. I came from my home country to get a better education, yet am already getting enough experience and opportunity here at Starbucks.

People come and go but 1 thing is always memorable, Starbucks was home, is home, and will be home for many people that need it.

-Prince Nati

Sometimes independent coffee shops do have more unusual décor or creative menu items than a large chain. But ultimately, the value they provide is in how the human beings in their community make use of them. And people can get great, life-changing experiences anywhere they set their mind to it.