A listserv that I belong to has had a discussion about why the ancient meme that cities are evil, unAmerican congregations of overeducated snobs, while folks in small towns are decent, commonsense types who look out for each other and embody real virtue, persists. To the point that no candidate for office boasts about a city childhood, but people like Rick Perry seem to think they gain stature by going on about their small-town origins. A parallel discussion has been reflecting on why small business seems to get the same privileged pass, and whether it should. No-one has invoked the name of George Babbitt yet, but he’s in the wings.

Sara Robinson gave me permission to post the following from that list about her home town of Bishop, CA:

In my mind’s eye, I can walk up and down Main Street of my hometown as it was 30 years ago and easily name 50 thriving small businesses, each of which was supporting at least one middle-class family, often two or three (and I can usually name the families, too, because one of them was mine). On the profits they made from these businesses, these families were able to own nice middle-class houses, send their kids to college, take vacations, buy new cars, and generally live the American Dream as we understood it then.

Several things happened to put an end to that. First, K-mart moved into town, and in short order shut down several of the sporting goods stores, at least one book store, one family-owned pharmacy, two hardware stores (one of which had been in business since 1888), the local dairy, and a couple of dozen other core businesses. The result was a significant loss of middle-class, independent jobs, which were only partly replaced by the deeply inferior $6.50/hour jobs offered at the new store.

The next was that the Berlin Wall fell, which led two years later to the closing of the Union Carbide mine that was the biggest employer in town. Seven hundred union jobs in a town of 5,000 — poof. Suddenly, the US decided that having a domestic source of strategic metals like tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium was no longer a security necessity; now, was OK to depend on Russia and China for these things, especially if their miners got paid a quarter what ours did. Losing the mine and the related jobs also cost us another big chunk of Main Street.

This one-two punch set the stage for the third plague, which of course was the meth epidemic that came along just after the mine closed.

In my small-town experience, big corporations giveth (as Carbide did for 50 years) and big corporations also taketh away (as both Carbide and K-Mart did in the late 80s). But the ultimate effect was to turn my town from a comfortable, optimistic middle-class American town to a working-class trailer-park meth-fueled hell where nobody can get a job that pays a living wage unless they’re running a lab in their garage. “Home” as I knew it has been gone for 20 years.

Yeah, small businesses can be parochial and narrow in their view of their own interests. But they’re also working in an environment where they’re having to follow regulations designed for much bigger companies, are operating on much thinner margins, and are being dogged by big businesses that are able to munch them whole. It’s a vastly more hostile environment than the one that obtained in decades past; I don’t wonder that it made them mean. Middle-class America was rooted in a rich small-business economy: the two go together. And based on what I saw in Canada (a country that goes way out of its way to encourage people to start small businesses and help them thrive), I doubt we’re going to see a real middle-class renaissance until we make small, independent businesses more viable once again.

The place I grew up couldn’t be more different from the Bishop of Sara’s childhood, but as I read her post I realized it was the same in many important respects. Along Third Avenue in Manhattan, within two blocks north and south of 30th St., were several dozen retail stores, all family-owned, plus a large commercial hardware store and an A&P that passed, in New York of the period, for a “supermarket”. I was known by sight if not by name to almost all these merchants and could go to and fro along that busy big-city street in complete safety. The shoe repair/newsdealer/hat cleaner (men’s hats (i) were worn and (ii) needed to be cleaned and reblocked from time to time) was run by Messr’s (or Signori) Petrillo and Fabrizio; Petrillo knew I was only allowed to buy one comic book a day and enforced the rule, but Fabrizio was a pushover and would let me get out with two at a time.

Outside the A&P there were usually two or three perambulators with babies in them (strollers, and urban paranoia, were still to come), the proprietors inside shopping. My mother brought our Irish Setter, who parked under the pram and though she had no use for me (I had arrived after she was ensconced in the family), recognized that I belonged to Mom and had to be protected, so people who reached towards me to pinch my cheek or try to get a smile and a gurgle were warned off by a serious growl from below.

Mr. and Mrs. Schindler’s little grocery store ran a tab for us: you would ask for stuff on shelves that filled the wall to what must have been a ten-foot ceiling, and Mr. Schindler would expertly grab a box of cornflakes with a long pole with tongs at the far end , lift it off a high shelf, and drop it to his other hand. With the order on the counter, he would write the prices on a paper bag, total it, make a note, and put the groceries in the bag. I never heard a dispute about the monthly bill, and no-one ever signed for anything.

Every stop in every store entailed a few words of chat, though I didn’t know the owners’ families as Sara did (New York doesn’t work that way).

Bishop’s K-Mart, and real supermarkets, and Wal-Mart all sell stuff for less than the small-scale retailing system they suffocate possibly can, and probably save a lot of shoppers’ time that would be spent going to the butcher, the baker, the toy store, the greengrocer, etc. [Though, now that I think of it, my parents probably saved a lot of time after I was about eight because they could send me out to shop for this and that, and for a kid, it was entertaining just to go to the liquor store to cash a check for Dad. Of course it was probably illegal for me to enter the liquor store…] If the quality of life is measured by how much stuff we have, we are well out of that inefficient world; I certainly have more power tools than my Dad did, and I consume more housing and vehicles: obviously life is uncontroversially better when GDP is higher, and when the Chinese and Vietnamese make us cool stuff cheap. More stuff is what it’s all about, right? If you have more stuff, who cares if daily life (like shopping) is deracinated, isolated, and sterile?

The big stores that sell me stuff cheap have even figured out a way to imitate the unrehearsed social intercourse of family-scaled retail. At the local Safeway, and Fry’s, and Best Buy, staff who are complete strangers greet me walking down an aisle with “Hi! How are you doing?” in a creditable imitation of the way people who know each other enough to care about the answer interact. At the Safeway checkout, the clerk always asks “did you find everything you wanted?” [though they never seem the least bit interested if I tell them about something they’re out of] and then offers “help out to your car?” This one puzzled me as I do not look especially frail, have just pushed the same load of groceries around the store in a wheeled cart by myself, and there are no steps between the counter and my car; I asked about it and was told the clerks are instructed to ask everyone, and indeed they ask my very fit students too. Of course the effect of this robotic pseudo-friendliness is exactly the opposite of Mr. Fabrizio’s bending the comic book rule. The “hi’s” and eye contact at Best Buy are actually uglier; this distasteful little fakery is put on because it has been shown that people are less prone to shoplift if someone has made eye contact with them and uttered some sort of greeting. I have started reassuring these folks “don’t worry, I’m not planning to steal anything!” but they don’t seem pleased to hear it; indeed some give me an unmistakable fish eye. Odd.

None of the value whose loss Sara and I regret has any presence in economic data. K-Mart sells more, at lower prices, than the mishmash of small retailers writing prices on paper bags, creative destruction holds sway and efficiency increases, end of story.

[Cross-posted atThe Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.