A favorite family story concerns the time my wife and son and I were driving home from a vacation in the Blue Ridge mountains of West Virginia. We got a late start and by the time we got to Wheeling, an old mill town near the Ohio border, we were ready to find a place for the night. Bored with the franchise motels along the interstate, we decided to get off the beaten track and experience a more authentic brand of Americana.
Sure, the corner coffeehouse is fine, but if Starbucks puts 'em out of business, maybe that's because Starbucks is what people really want. And if that's true, isn't it because Starbucks is ... better?
We followed the road signs to what appeared to be an old hotel. Maybe the empty parking lot should have been the tip-off. Or the way the desk clerk wanted to hold my driver's license "for safe keeping." The obscenities scrawled on our door were definitely off-putting, and when we opened that door ...
An hour later we were checking into a Hampton Inn. Everything about it, right down to the plastic shower stall and the second-run movies on cable, was reassuringly as expected.
On that particular evening, inside the box was fine, thank you very much.
That experience hasn't stopped us, though, from trying to find that well-kept secret of an inn or restaurant or car mechanic. Or from thinking that just beneath the big box surface of mass American commerce there are individual business folk dedicated to plying their trades in handmade, human scale ways.
We know these folks are out there. In fact, we patronize their shops whenever we can. We also understand that not only do they provide us with goods and services, but with a sense that where we live is distinctive and unique. There are Starbucks everywhere, after all, but that coffeehouse on the corner - the one with the local paintings on the walls and the eclectic selection of magazines and newspapers on the counter - is one-of-a-kind.
You might think we'd take better care of that. America is a country that prides itself on rugged individuality. But we also like to say, "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" In other words, that something is only as good as the number of people willing to buy it. This is a great tension in us. Sure, the corner coffeehouse is fine, but if Starbucks puts 'em out of business, maybe that's because Starbucks is what people really want. And if that's true, isn't it because Starbucks is ... better?
In his account of the great economic thinkers, The Worldly Philosophers, Robert L. Heilbroner observed that human history can be seen as one, long struggle for survival - not as individuals, but as social groups. In order to make it, wrote Heilbroner, humans have had to depend on one another. We are social animals. But figuring out how best to relate to one another is neither easy nor obvious. "Man is not an ant," Heilbroner wrote. "He seems to be endowed with a fiercely self-centered nature. If his relatively weak physique forces him to seek cooperation, his untamed inner drives constantly threaten to disrupt his social working partnerships."
For Heilbroner, economics is "an astonishing game in which society assured its own continuance by allowing each individual to do exactly as he saw fit - provided he followed a central guiding rule." That rule was that each should do what was to his own best monetary advantage. "The interplay," Heilbroner concludes, "of one man against another resulted in the necessary tasks of society getting done."
But while the kind of competition Heilbroner writes about might serve as a means for social vitality, "fiercely self-centered nature" seems a better way of describing contemporary business practice. Economic competition now seems less about social process and more about winners and losers. When people talk about "owning" a particular market, they mean monopolizing it.
When one looks at the American landscape, the temptation to liken our shopping malls and superstores to other iconic forms of architecture, like cathedrals, is irresistible. The blurring of the material and the spiritual was furthered when President Bush urged Americans to shop in order to allay the trauma of terrorist attacks in 2001. Many of us freely say that shopping serves as a kind of therapy or recreation.
It's easy to call these feelings absurd or confused. But that doesn't make them any less influential. If the material and the spiritual are practically one for us, then the role of independent enterprise - wherever we find it - begins to assume an even greater significance. Independents not only bring added dimensions into our individual lives, but society, as Heilbroner might say, doesn't get done without them.
A final note. A couple of years after our experience at the hotel from hell, my family and I again found ourselves in Wheeling, in need of a place to rest. We drove around a little more and found an old office building that had been converted into an inn. The people who ran the place were trying their level best to make a go of it in a town where things weren't going very well. I don't know that I'll ever go back to Wheeling. But, for one night, I'm glad we gave it - and ourselves - that second chance.