The American Voice: There Is No Place Like Home


In October, 1929, W.K. Henderson, a wealthy Shreveport businessman who inherited his father’s company, got fed up with the rapid proliferation of chain stores in his hometown and went on air at the local radio station KWKH. “American people, wake up!,” he cried. We can whip these chain stores. We can whip the whole cock-eyed world when we are right... I know the chain store game. I’ll be your leader. I’ll whip hell out of them if you will support me. We can drive them out in thirty days if you people will stay out of their stores.”

There had been chain stores in America long before they were branded as a menace. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, better known as A & P, was the earliest chain store in the U.S., established in 1859; the first Woolworth store was opened in 1879; and The Kroger Grocery & Baking Company was born in Cincinnati in 1882.  Expansion of chains was gradual at first, barely raising public concern about the impact of this new model on independently owned shops and local communities; these businesses were perceived as conspicuous, individual impositions on an otherwise stable, orderly system of distribution (manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer, each at a fair profit). But by the time Wall Street crashed in 1929, chain stores accounted for more than 20% of U.S. retail sales, giving birth to an anti-chain-store movement whose momentum was proportionate. In 1927, as anti-chain “agitators” pursued legislation to curb the new system, a speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives pleaded to his constituents: “The chain stores are undermining the foundation of our entire local happiness and prosperity. They have destroyed our home markets and merchants, paying a minimum to our local enterprises and charities, sapping the life-blood of prosperous communities and leaving about as much in return as a travelling band of gypsies.” And New York Senator Royal Copeland wrote that “when a chain enters a city block, ten other stores close up. In smaller cities and towns, the chain store contributes nothing to the community. Chain stores are parasites. I think they undermine the foundations of the country.” 

Eighty-something years later, the loss of independent, locally owned stores and the pace of retail consolidation is staggering. A recent study, published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, reported that 11,000 independent pharmacies had closed between 1990 and 2000; independent bookstores account for less than 17% of book sales today; two hardware companies account for more than a third of the national market; and Walmart has captured 25% of Americans’ total spending on groceries.  But one hardly needs a survey to see evidence of these trends; just go anywhere. Within a square mile of Indianapolis’s Monument Circle you’ll see five Starbucks, the Gap, seven Subways, CVS, Outback Steakhouse, Bath & Body Works, Morton’s, Old Spaghetti Factory, and Office Depot; and you’ll see the exact same businesses within a square mile of Iolani Palace in Honolulu and the Central Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Just down the road from the Alamo in San Antonio is Aeropostale, Hot Topic, Tony Roma’s, Cheesecake Factory, Zales, more Starbucks, more Subways, another Morton’s, a Longhorn Steakhouse, and Victoria’s Secret. Large and small, American cities are becoming identical, unexceptional, unsurprising. What does that say of our national character, the nation of course being a web of cities?

Pocatello is set in a chain restaurant in the center of a parking lot, in the center of a small city, in the center of Sam Hunter’s Idaho: a lonesome terrain that has, over the course of his anthology to date, housed a network of achingly isolated truck drivers (The Few, 2013), a homosexual conversion guru who’s questioning his life’s work (A Great Wilderness, 2014), a pastor in exile from his hometown, now in the throes of religious doubt (A Bright New Boise, 2010), and an obese, gay ex-Mormon struggling to make contact with his estranged daughter in the final week of his slow suicide (The Whale, 2012). It’s an Idaho that’s populated by the lost and the marginal, where families fail to cohere though they live in a heartland that peddles the cliché of family values at every opportunity, and where the grandiose Western terrain is flattened by the ubiquity of big box retail.  His characters are as lost within Idaho’s suburban sprawl as they are within the cosmos.  In Pocatello, our newest protagonist, Eddie, is looking to find some sense of home in the middle of a hometown that’s evaporating.  “You remember great—grandpa’s old place?,” he asks. “I still go there sometimes. And I sit there for a while, but then I have to leave because it’s not our land anymore, and I get back in my car and I drive back to my apartment, and all I can think is—there’s the Starbucks.  The Walmart. The Burger King. The Staples. The Barnes & Noble. The Best Buy. The McDonald’s. The Safeway. The Home Depot. The Olive Garden. All this stuff, this entire town with no history, no future, just—(pause) I feel like I don’t exist. I don’t know how anyone can feel like they exist anymore.”

The yearning for home is a time-honored theme in writing, from The Odyssey to Of Mice and Men, from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to the Beach Boys’ “That’s Not Me,” from E.T. to The Wizard of Oz (though, when considered with Sam Hunter’s plays, Dorothy’s famous mantra takes on a decidedly less rosy spin). But in every example I can think of, our heroes have left what was their home to go on some voyage (to war, to work, to explore) and the action of their story is a physical journey back.  In Pocatello, our hero Eddie, manager of a chain restaurant, hasn’t gone anywhere.  He has stayed home, only to see that it’s his home that has gone wayward; and his journey is to construct a home to return to where his went missing.  This strikes me as a quintessentially contemporary, poignant spin on the classic trope of the hero’s journey. It’s a deeply human story adapted for the faceless landscape of the Chain Store Age.

The word “community” is so overused that its meaning has become diluted and inexact. Personally, I’m most drawn to the idea as articulated by Jane Jacobs in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which defines community as the many small interactions that occur in our everyday lives. “It grows,” she writes, “out of people stopping by the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop…hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist. …Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial, but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at the local level…is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street.”

To Jacobs, the center of community is a healthy local retail economy, a city of sidewalks and small stores rather than massive parking lots and impersonal shopping centers. It’s a place where business owners live in the place they do business, where they see how their business relates to civic life, and where income cycles back into the local community. Such places are increasingly rare, and the isolation of the characters who populate Pocatello brings this into overwhelming focus.  I think about this as I walk through Times Square on my way into work, past Sunglass Hut, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the Gap, Sephora and Lids. Past Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday, Aeropostale and Walgreens. Past the Olive Garden.