Department stores in small towns are a necessary evil

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

“You can buy cheap underwear at Walmart, but you can’t buy small-town quality of life anywhere,” boasts the official website of Sprawl Buster, a vigilante small business advocate who fights to stop big name stores from putting little, local shops across the country out of business.

Big-box stores are under heavy scrutiny for infiltrating small towns and monopolizing business. While they do draw consumers from local mom-and-pop shops, they also provide easy, affordable access to necessary amenities for all. The presence of a major corporation disrupts the quite, homey atmosphere of a small town, but ensuring the basic needs of the town’s residents are met should trump adhering to traditional aesthetics.

There is a particular charm to a bustling main street and the quaint shops that line the sidewalk. Entering one of these establishments is more of a social experience than a simple shopping trip.

“As Main Streets become sparser, there will be fewer of the spontaneous, community-building interactions that take place when residents run into each other on the sidewalk or at a store,” said Alana Semuels in The Atlantic.

In addition to acting as a platform for social interaction, these small businesses often support the community through sponsorships, donations, and occasionally serving as a venue for events. Semuels describes them as “the linchpins of a community”: they bring the town closer, bridging the gap between citizens and commerce because they are run by the people that raise their families in said community.

The small-town way of life is heavily contingent upon the close-knit community structure that independently owned local businesses provide. Big-name stores such as Walmart and Home Depot are not owned by our friends and neighbors, but by corporations hundreds of miles away. They do not reserve a bar of our favorite soap for us or donate free pizzas to our children’s softball team. They are impersonal, and thus threaten to destroy the intimacy of our community.

But is it a luxury to be able to worry about imposing big businesses?

Chestertown is largely reluctant to change, and wary of any outsider that threatens to commercialize this quiet colonial town. To many, Acme and Peebles are seen as blemishes amidst the specialty shops like Chestertown Natural Foods and Twigs & Teacups.

But the real blemish on the face of Chestertown is the striking income inequality, with roughly 25% of the population living below the poverty line, according to a 2018 United States Census Bureau survey. While the merchandise is always unique, the prices in small local shops are usually quite high, driving away the lower-income residents.

Dr. Bill Schindler, anthropology professor and director of the Eastern Shore Food Lab, described Chestertown as a food desert: Acme, Redners and 7-Eleven are the most centrally-located points-of-access to affordable, generally nutritious food. The specialty shops in the downtown area are a fun venue for a weekend brunch date, but they cannot serve as a reliable food source for Chestertown residents. Hindered by prices and distance, many struggle to find access to this necessary resource.

Gentrification is most commonly associated with urban areas; however, “rural gentrification” occurs when small-town residents are driven away by a sudden influx of tourism, usually as a result of the presence of a college or tourist amenity. The little local businesses like cafes or souvenir shops replace former corner convenience stores to appeal to visitors, leaving the original residents without access to necessities.

In these instances, big name stores may be a necessary evil.

Perhaps Sprawl-Buster is right: while the convenience of cheap Walmart underwear is nice, “small-town quality of life” is hard to buy at a department store. But, that small-town life may not be of the highest quality for all residents. It is the town’s responsibility to care for all that reside there, and sometimes that means compromising aesthetics in favor of accessibility.

I dislike the idea of all of Chestertown’s adorable shops being paved over by major corporations as much as the next person; however, boutiques and cafes simply cannot meet the needs of everyone that lives here. Chestertown, fortunately, seems to have struck a decent balance with a “pocket” of town reserved for Acme, Walgreens, and other big-name stores as well as an eclectic, upscale downtown area. While there is always room for improvement, especially within the mindset of the town towards the issue, this community structure is a successful model for combining accessibility with luxury.

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