When I arrived in town, there was a good diner, a good place serving old-fashioned Southern food, and two nice Tex-Mex places. A place that really stood out to me, though, was Papa Geno's Pizza. It was a locally owned business and one my wife and I frequented quite a bit in the first few months of our marriage. I am a man who appreciates good pizza and Papa Geno's made simply outstanding pizza. The pie crust was the perfect thickness, the toppings tasty, and the cheese melted in precisely the right way. Eating one of their pies was like taking a trip to pizza heaven. During our engagement and for a little while after we got married, my wife and I had many a lovely dinner sitting on the floor of our living room with a box of Papa Geno's pizza between us while watching episodes of The Office. Happy memories.
Not long after I arrived, however, Domino's Pizza showed up in town. Like all such national chains, of pizza or whatever else, the food was not bad but not especially good. However, it was cheaper than the pizza at Papa Geno's and had a drive-though window. Convenience won out over quality. Before too long, the locally owned pizzeria was out of business and gone forever, leaving the national chain as the king of the pizza hill in our town.
As with pizza, so with coffee. My wife and I had our first date at a wonderful Austin coffeehouse called Mozart's, on the shore of Lake Austin, and in my days as a political hack I had many a meeting over mocha lattes at tiny indie coffeehouses. The capital of Texas is full of such places, each with their own unique, funky character. Independent coffeehouses are things I like very much, so I was delighted when one opened in Manor about two years ago. It was called Zetroc Kaffee. Its coffee was good and it briefly served as a sort of meeting place for the local community, hosting karaoke nights, poetry nights, and a couple of meetings with local political candidates.
Like Papa Geno's Pizza, however, it also failed to last. Starbucks showed up. Zetroc Kaffee closed down.
A pretty good Chinese takeout place opened up in Manor a few years ago, with the rather unimaginative name of Beijing Bistro. I especially like its sesame chicken. A Panda Express has recently set up shop, though. We'll see what happens.
These little stories have been repeated again and again in towns and neighborhoods all across America over the past few decades. In many ways, harkening back to the "good old days" is imagining something that didn't ever really exist, but in this case there really were "good old days". Restaurants and businesses, whether we're talking about pizza shops, hardware stores, or anything else, used to be mostly locally owned. The guy who owned the place was usually to be found at the establishment itself, contributing his own labor to the success of the business, for it was his business.
This is about a lot more than just nostalgia. Consider the differences between a waiter at a locally owned restaurant and the one at a corporate establishment. The waiter at the locally owned establishment knows the owner of the place personally, having been hired by him rather than by some mid-level manager or supervisor. He goes to school with the owner's kids. The owner might even give him a bonus check when he graduates high school. In a very real sense, he is as deeply invested in the success of the restaurant as the owner. There is a genuine communal bond there.
Now consider a waiter at a Chili's or Olive Garden. He was not hired by the owners of the restaurants, who are faceless stockholders who likely aren't even aware their money is invested in the business. The waiter has never seen and will never see any members of the board of directors of whatever national company actually operates these restaurants, who wouldn't care about him anyway. The manager or supervisor or whatever wants the business to succeed because he wants to keep his job (though he might simply transfer to another store), but he has nowhere near the level of investment that an actual owner of a business has.
Near the church that my family attends is a sandwich shop called Hoody's. It's been there as long as my wife can remember. The sandwiches are delicious, but another thing I love about the place are the pictures of local high school sports teams along the walls, along with newspaper articles of their past victories. There's an actual connection to the local community at this place. You never see pictures of local high school kids on the wall of a Subway, do you?
A lot more is at stake here than I think people realize. Locally owned businesses enrich and enhance our communities in a way that corporate chains never could. They assert and maintain the unique character of each community, whereas chain establishments are identical no matter where they are found across the country. They have a solid link with the community, which corporate chains can never match. An independently owned bookstore might stock books by a local author, but Barnes and Noble won't do so unless it's approved by its national office. Moreover, economic studies have conclusively demonstrated that money spent in locally owned businesses tends to remain in the community, whereas money spent in corporate chains tends to flow out of it.
Strong local communities, with their own histories, traditions, and sense of self-respect, are the foundations of our republic. In our own day, they are slowly dying. If you get off the interstate highways onto the back roads, you often find yourself moving through a graveyard of once thriving towns that are now barren and empty, like the ghost towns of old Western movies. In innumerable neighborhoods of our larger urban areas, the story is much the same. Local communities with identities of their own are being replaced by a never-ending asphalt desert of the same chain stores and restaurants that you see everywhere else in America. We've turned into a plastic society. It's hard to find anything like civic virtue in such a place.
I am personally far from guiltless in all this, I should say. A Walmart, that energetic crusher of local communities, opened up one of their smaller stores in Manor a few years ago. I intensely dislike shopping there, but the nearest alternate means a round trip of about an hour. That's okay by me for a planned weekly grocery shopping trip, but if it's nine o'clock at night and we desperately need diapers or baby wipes, convenience will sadly win out over my principles. The obvious solution is to be more efficient in my weekly trips. I, like the rest of the country, need to get started.
We are right to worry about the fate of America. We look around a see all many of threats, from terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, to climate change, to fiscal collapse, to whatever else. We often fail to see equally serious threats standing right in our face. The decline and fall of local communities in the face of corporate chain homogeneity is precisely one of those threats. Thankfully, though, it is one we can do something about every day by supporting our local businesses.
So the next time you think of grabbing a coffee at Starbucks, picking up a pizza from Pizza Hut, getting your car tuned at Pep Boys, and so on and so forth, stop yourself and ask whether or not there is a local alternative. Chances are there is. Spend your money there and don't fill up the coffers of the enemies of the republic.