Commercial democracy

I recently saw a documentary film lamenting the demise of independent bookstores. There were interviews with people who preferred independents and with employees of Borders, which was presented as a primary villain responsible for the disappearance of small, local booksellers.

The resentment and protests of Borders moving into an area sounded a lot like common reactions to other large retailers, like Whole Foods in Saint Paul and Wal-Mart in Chico. The protesters want to preserve the little guys by keeping large corporations out, and I have a certain sympathy for their position. The protesters seem consistently to lose, apparently because most people don’t care about small, local businesses and just want what they want now, regardless of who’s selling it.

We seem to conflate business and the “free” market and all that with social attributes and politics, which makes some sense in this corporate culture we’ve got, but is bound to be dissatisfying.

I tend to patronize small businesses, including small bookstores. Even when I worked at Home Depot, I shopped at my local hardware store. I don’t limit myself to small businesses, but I try to give them first crack at my money as my way of helping to spread the wealth around.

While I lived in Minnesota, two of my favorite bookstores went out of business, and I read recently that another one has closed. I don’t like that. I didn’t like New Orleans being underwater, or the destruction of Chico’s old town square, or the resurgence of AT&T, or Tower Records going under, or the rise of our police state, either. A fat lot of good any of that does. Things change.

I’ve bought books at Barnes & Noble in Chico, and I’m likely to again—not often, but eventually. I want what I want when I want it, too.

About the Wal-Mart flap in Chico, I’m largely indifferent and completely uninvolved. I don’t want Wal-Mart here or anywhere, so I don’t buy there. In fact, I’ve never been inside a Wal-Mart, and I think that’s the most I can do about that. Thousands of people in and around Chico shop at Wal-Mart. That’s why it came here to begin with and why its management wants to build a bigger one. As long as thousands of people shop at Wal-Mart, it will continue to thrive. Business is about money, not community.

I don’t mind people protesting Wal-Mart. I wish them well. I also wish the people who shop at Wal-Mart well. I think I’d like it if nobody shopped there, but I don’t think my trying to persuade Wal-Mart shoppers to go somewhere else for their stuff is a good use of my time.

In the same vein, I think the war protesters waiting for Congress to ride through downtown Chico are seriously misguided.

The U.S. of A. is mostly a half-assed, commercial democracy—Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble shoppers vote with their money, and I vote with mine.