Ruminations on Small Business, Inspired by a Walk Through the City

I need silence. I need stillness. I need time to think. I’ve been in Chicago for 48 hours. I feel as though I’ve lived a thousand lives, passed a thousand blank, unsmiling faces, and walked a thousand city blocks. I will be the first to admit I have cultivated an antediluvian distaste for “the city” (bordering on the irrational, perhaps), still I must acknowledge its allure. I cannot help but marvel at what I’ve found here. You wouldn’t believe the spectacle!

I absolutely must tell you of the stores I saw! Though you know well my distaste for consumerism, and my scowl upon entering a store, my heart warmed at the antique manifestation of commerce which I found here. I am used to the anonymous, fluorescent, cloned expanses of modern retail. Here in this city, manifold shops line each city street, and in their bellies circulate living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people. These stores are laden with sacks of spices, shelves lined with jars of tea leaves, and haphazard stacks of antique books. I have entered an ancient, decaying world. Instead of the sleek, shiny metal and glass surfaces I know, there is dark wood everywhere. The sunlight streams through the big shop windows. I feel oddly at ease in the aged, warm clutter of places that have been lived in. Everywhere I turn, I see the organic aesthetic of things that have been collected over time and placed with a loving hand. Nowhere can my cynical eye detect artifice or ostentation. I do not see here the cold, calculated floor plans of stores that are designed to seduce and beguile their customers.

Even the people behind the register–though they too are hired labor–seem satisfied with their lot. I do not see in their cheery faces the dull, resentful eyes of the “sales associates” who work at the mall. I see them jesting with each other. They have the freedom to step out if they need a break. The environment is relaxed and jovial. The crushing, dehumanizing policies and procedures of corporate human relations departments have not yet stolen away their dignity. The shopkeepers see their employees as human beings, not just expendable bodies and budget expenses. They treat them well, they pay them as much as they can afford to. The shop’s continued survival rests on the loyalty of the employees, and the patronage of their customers. This is the face of small business that is fast being wiped out around the world.

My heart–warmed by nostalgia for a charming life I’ve never known–almost forgets the empty, boarded-up storefronts of downtown rural America. Almost.

Small business seems to be thriving here, but the panting advance of the corporate is felt when we look outside. The invasive chain franchises circle like vultures, looking for a perch to alight upon and consume. These are greedy scavengers that require large parcels of land. They are carriers of a deadly blight. In order to settle and build their nests, they must uproot the pesky, perky neighbors. Humble, kindly native species cannot compete with unfeeling machines. The corporate entity despises competition. It will not rest until its strident voice plays the sole song in each ecosystem it colonizes and devastates.

Once the corporation has selected a suitable spot, it cries out with a shriek, and the yellow machines descend. The wrecking ball and demolition crew are called in. Chain link fences pop up around the perimeter, sheltering the half-hatched horror. Half a city block is torn down. For months, the stuttering commotion of jackhammers and bulldozers and cement mixers fills the air. Cement is poured to prepare the soil. The fences come down. Ugly, ahistorical warehouses have sprung up like weeds from the empty lots. The ones who once lived here have been out-priced and out-matched. They cannot afford to relocate; they are tied to the brick and mortar of their homes. They can only cut their own throats so much.  They cannot finagle the same low prices, because they cannot buy in the bulk amounts a store with ten thousand franchises can afford. A single shopkeeper receives none of the hand-outs or tax cuts showered on a corporation trying to corner a new market.

Reader, you already know well my aversion to the machinations of late-stage capitalism. You know my distaste for the mass-produced. You know my heart aches thinking of the death of craft and the subsequent industrialization, automation, and replacement of human endeavor. You know I long (perhaps stupidly and naively, I must admit) for those simpler, leaner days when we lived off the land in humble squalor and engaged in honest labor and trade and craftsmanship. You know my sudden, skeptical squint at the phrase “economic development.” You know the word “progress” makes me cringe. You know I am easily enraged by injustices I cannot articulate. I have known no other life in all my years, but I know this way of living is madness. “How else are we to live?” you ask. “It’s too late to go back. You must know that by now. The countryside has been carved out and covered in concrete.”

“It’s not true,” I wail. “There must be a way.” I trail off with an impotent sigh of disgust. I cannot make you understand. I do not understand it myself. We’re destroying the earth. We’re poisoning ourselves. We’re racing toward self-annihilation. People have satisfied their needs for millennia without destroying the earth. There must be a fairer, less destructive way to live.

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