Monday, November 15, 2004

Bahrainian arabica

This news item from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, nicely encapsulates the current American economic situation. Brewberry's, one of St Paul's last surviving locally owned coffeehouses was targeted for destruction by chain Caribou Coffee, which opened a branch across the street. This practice should be familiar to just about every suburban American: a national corporation systematically eradicates small businesses by leveraging their size, their economies of scale, and their name recognition against the little guys. An interview with a Caribou customer demonstrates the psychology behind this: " 'I'm used to Caribou, I know what I want and it's nice and convenient,' she said, ordering a large Caribou cappuccino before hurrying back to paint a child's dresser. 'I hope neither goes under and both survive and fill their own niches. And I'm not sure I consider Caribou the big guy, because it's still based in Minnesota.' "

While Caribou is technically "based" in Minnesota, the article points out that the company is in fact "owned by an Atlanta venture capital company, which in turn is controlled by a bank in the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain." So though Caribou may have started long ago as a small business in Minnesota, it is now merely masquerading as a homegrown company while it actuallly funnels money overseas to a country known for its dubious royal family and its petrowealth.

The customer's response seems to me emblematic of the way Americans are quick to embrace what chain stores offer -- "niceness and efficiency" -- in favor of the community solidarity and local control and regionalized nuance that local businesses can provide. It reveals their readiness to make excuses for themselves in their eagerness to go to the chain over the allegedly less convenient local business, which suggests they know there is something shameful in it.

Scott McLatchy, who tipped me off to this, explains it thus: "Ignore for a moment the fact that Caribou is actually owned by some offshore conglomerate. It is certainly an amusing twist, but she could be forgiven for not knowing that. What I think is really emblematic of a very American mindset is the bland wish that "neither goes under and both survive and fill their own niches." This is self-deception of the most studied and willful kind. Even absent any knowledge of the mountain of petrodollars underpinning the Caribou empire, does she really believe, as her statement seems to indicate, that the local coffee shop and Caribou have a roughly equal chance of survival? That if the Caribou franchise somehow failed, the little blotch of red ink that failure would leave on the corporate balance sheet would be the moral equivalent of the eradication of some poor local's life savings? "...fill their own niches" is also nice. How many niches are there to be filled in a corporate space based on running hot water over ground coffee beans? Or is she actually saying that there should be one coffee house for those arty, concerned-about-the-world, hippie types, and another for folks like me who drive a nice car, are left-leaning but not all nutty about it, and really, really like all that parking?"

I think she really is saying the latter: that concern for a local economy is a kind of lifestyle choice, catered to and embodied by a genre of stores whose significance run no more deeply than that for her: being owned locally is of mere cosmetic significane to this woman. It's a detail that just helps the shopper construct a certain kind of community-conscious identity, and that's all it means. If that's not your bag, you can go to Caribou, "which is nice and efficient."

And that in itself points out how bureaucratic, monolothic, transnational corporations have somehow managed to leverage their huge size into a monopoly on the very concept of convenience. Most Americans will almost instictively assume that something that is standardized and familiar will afford them a more convenient, efficient experience. It almost seems perverse to dispute it, it's such a hegemonic idea, but shouldn't the local business, with its vested interest in idiosyncratic relationships with specific people be able to provide a more efficent experience? Shouldn't we want an economy geared to make personalized experiences be the ones we experience as efficient and convenient? Has our notion of democracy become so perverted that we experience bureaucratic processing as a reaffirmation of our equality, to be given what everybody else gets everywhere? Or have we all become so conformed, growing up in the public space fashioned by corporate capitalism and having been shaped by it, that the standardized experience prescribed at some corporate office is perfectly adequate for all of us. Our identities are so detatched from any local dimension that these corporatized experiences feel more homey to us? Corporations are able to be efficient by treating human beings as interchangeable commodities; so does the universal triumph of the chain store mean that we have happily adopted the generic identity as our own (and so then must make local stores like Brewberry's fit into a genre, make it no different essentially than say, in the East Village, in order to understand them, to see them as catering to us in our genericness)? Do we like being standardized, beccause it assures us a chance to fit in, which is a need no longer fulfilled by atomized bedroom communities?

A strange reversal. We are secretly threatened by places like Brewberry's, which no longer seem local and particular, but are really insidery and suspiciously exclusive. The small business is capable of knowing you personally, but doesn't, therefore it's willfully refusing to recognize you and therefore makes you feel like an outcast. And we are cheered by places like Caribou, which assure us of our anonymity, and makes no claim to ever know us personally, and therefore never is capable of affronting us. It reduces us to an abstract set of needs, which it fulfills in its limted, prescribed way.

And our experiences in these places convert us into these abstract needs predicted and/or concocted somewhere else in the name of expediency; and as we convert ourselves into this generic figure again and again and again, we become even more of a stranger to ourselves. And this discomfort makes it even less likely we'll feel comfortable in a local, real space that expects us to have some sense of who are, and to be somebody specific.

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