Economics

Wake Up Bloomingdale's

|

In the November Washington Monthly, Christina Larson reviews Jan Whitaker's history of American department stores — retailers who were destroying community, homogenizing the planet, and putting mom and pop on the street before Sam Walton was born:

Established venders feared being driven out of business, and indeed many Main Street tea merchants, booksellers, crockery stores, and glassware dealers did lose patrons and close shop. Other early critiques were less about cents than sensibility. In 1897, Scribner's lamented the big stores' tawdry sales events; banal and homogenous goods; and appeals to customers as crowds, rather than as selective individuals. Mark Twain found maddening the stores' practice of heaping goods of no practical relation on adjacent tables for customers to simply rummage through. Of particular offense was the sight of an autobiography of President Ulysses S. Grant strewn alongside the rugs and teapots at John Wanamaker's store in Philadelphia. Clemens, who had co-published the book, blasted Wanamaker as "that unco-pious butter-mouthed Sunday school-slobbering sneak-thief."

Bad publicity aside, as Whitaker points out, "outweighing all the department store negatives was one huge positive fact: millions of people shopped in them."

I'm no Wal-Mart enthusiast, and something is clearly lost as we move from the pre-Bloomie's era to city-centered department stores to suburban Sam's Clubs. But given that small retailers have long been defined in opposition to their "banal and homogenous" counterparts — just as the hipster coffee shop downtown is as emphatically not Starbucks as it is anything else — it seems obvious that big boxes create opportunity for creative competition even as they trounce those who fail to innovate.

Julian Sanchez spotted a community of Wal-Mart haters back in December.