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Sometimes "progress" should be stopped dead in its tracks. Two years ago, my sleepy hometown of Chappaqua, New York was rudely awakened by the arrival of a Rite-Aid store in its downtown area. This is not such an unusual event; Rite-Aids, Blockbuster Videos, Staples and similar retail outlets are springing up in cities across America. But to a small suburban hamlet whose downtown district could easily fit inside the walls of Harvard Yard, the coming of such a superstore provided weeks of check-out counter chit-chat. We already had three drug stores within a mile or two of each other. Each was unique: Cadman's had been in business for over sixty years. Another stocked its shelves with an impressive menagerie of stuffed animals. The third had supplied me with bottle after bottle of pink, bubble gum flavored antibiotics, prescribed for my frequent childhood ear infections. Rite-Aid was a major threat to them all. The only bright point, it seemed, would be the store's beer section, which could prove invaluable for high school kids seeking some Genuine Draft on a Saturday night.
To be fair, there are other benefits of the new store. It provides part-time jobs for teenagers. Of course, so did the other three drug stores. And perhaps the good citizens of Chappaqua will be able to procure Sudafed at a discounted rate. But what's at stake is much more than Trojans and Pert Plus. The small town way of life, it seems, is rapidly disappearing. The clerks in Rite-Aid won't know my name and ask how school's going when I walk in. They won't extend me "credit" when I'm a dollar or two short. Stores like Rite-Aid probably won't have sidewalk sales during the Strawberry Festival or on Community Day. Will they permit kids to paint their windows with vampires and giant pumpkins on Halloween this October? These are considerations that the rational choice theorist will never understand.
And the phenomenon is not limited to small-town America; we are feeling similar effects of "progress" here in Cambridge. Local "Mom-and-Pop" stores are in precarious situations at best. Last year we watched Elsie's shut its doors. The Grolier Book Store was in grave danger of closing.
Now to be perfectly honest, I've never really enjoyed poetry, and I've never eaten a BLT in my life. And, true, stores do come and go even in small towns. But what is disturbing is the trend toward "Gapification." Within a couple blocks of the John Harvard statue, we now have a Tower Records, HMV Records, a Gap, Urban Outfitters, three CVS's, Chilis, Pizzeria Uno and a Coop operated by Barnes and Noble. These stores, while convenient, are impersonal and virtually indistinguishable from similar stores in other parts of the country and even around the world.
At this rate, it is only a matter of time before Tommy's becomes a Pizza Hut and Cardullo's is replaced by a Star Market. A Wal-Mart might soon open in the courtyard of Dunster House. Even specialty stores are at risk; how long will it be before Hubba Hubba is driven out of business by an S&M mega-store?
Please don't mistake my argument for a Gingrich-esque nostalgic diatribe. Nor do I mean to present an overly romanticized portrait of Main Street USA complete with smiling postman and a penny candy store. Rather, in an age when the preservation, maintenance and respect of cultures are exalted in academia and elsewhere, I find it odd that the American small town has not been privileged with the same endangered status afforded to other components of American multiculturalism. If we are not careful, gossipy barber shops and other Main Street institutions will find themselves relegated to historical theme parks. For now, only one of Chappaqua's original three drug stores remains open for business. And Rite-Aid thrives. Perhaps we can't fight this; "Gapification" might just be an inevitable stage in the development of capitalism. Maybe it's just a historical stepping stone on the way to something better; we'll just have to wait. In the meantime, I'm fresh out of Advil; maybe I can still make it to CVS by The Body Shop before closing time.
Gabriel B. Eber's column appears on alternate Saturdays.
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