Cities are living things. They grow older, like all of us, and they change. They evolve, or they die. I get that. I’ve grudgingly come to accept that the best things in life are transient. That realization doesn’t make it any easier, however, to accept it when good things, that genuinely make me happy, go away. And it’s doubly painful when those good things are replaced by painfully bland, completely soulless franchises, which were dreamed up in the corporate boardrooms of Wall Street in order to more efficiently suction money away from our local community. It’s taken some time, but I can accept that Discount Records is no longer on State Street. I still have a real problem, however, with the fact that a Potbelly Sandwich Shop now stands on the site where James Osterberg, as a teenager hired to put new records on the shelves, decided to make music his life’s work, met his future bandmates, and earned the nickname “Iggy”. History, I would contend, is important to the civic fabric of a community. And places like Potbelly, as good as their sandwiches may be, and as interesting as you may find the refurbished, yet non-functional, turn-of-the-century stoves they build their themed stores around, seek to obliterate that history in order to convey their heavily-focus-grouped aesthetic of faux authenticity.
I quarel with my friend Pete about these matters frequently. We sit together over lunch – me bemoaning the creeping spread of corporate homogeneity across the American landscape, and him defending the ubiquitous presence of national chains, arguing that they’re more efficient, and often treat their employees better than their locally-owned competitors. For the past several years, these heated discussions of ours have taken place over a table at Mahek, a small Indian restaurant in Ann Arbor that we’re both quite fond of. When we met to eat there a few days ago, though, we found that it too had closed – the most recent casualty in a war on authentic, non-commoditizable, non-scalable American culture. In the case of Mahek, it doesn’t look as though its building is going to be taken over by yet another Starbucks or 7-Eleven, as it was purchased by local restauranteur Sava Lelcaj, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm these days, as downtown rents continue to climb beyond the reach of local entrepreneurs who don’t have national chains behind them. No, most of the time we hear about this kind of turnover happening, it’s something like a Five Guys franchise moving into the shell of Ann Arbor’s beloved local book store Shaman Drum.
Before we move on, I should acknowledge that Discount Records was itself a chain, and that Potbelly, despite its non-local ownership, likely pays its people better than some local restaurants, and at least professes to care about the environment and the communities in which it operates its 200+ identical stores. So, yes, these are complex issues, which don’t lend themselves easily to the black and white thinking we all love so much. This, of course, is something that many of us heatedly discussed recently in the thread that emerged from my interview with local entrepreneurs Jean Henry, Lisa Waud and Helen Harding, the founders of the local entrepreneurial support group Small & Mighty.
In the past several weeks, we’ve learned not only that Mahek was closing, but also that Blimpy Burger, Eastern Accents and the Herb David Guitar Studio would be going out of business. And, before this most recent round, it was White Market, which closed this past summer, after over 8o years in business. The building now houses franchises of both Florida-based Firehouse Subs and Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza.
But, maybe there’s hope. Maybe, in time, the pendulum will swing back the other way, as it has in Ypsilanti, where unsuccessful chains have a tendency to be taken over by small and scrappy independent businesses… Our our local prepared food CSA, Harvest Kitchen, is in a former Qiznos. Our local Thai restaurant, Tuptim, is in a former Long John Silvers. The Blue Wolf Grill, which just recently opened on Washtenaw, is inside the shell of a former Taco Bell. Pacific Beach Burrito, before it closed, was in a former A&W. And Pita Pita exists where a Dunkin’ Donuts once stood. I take some comfort in that… in knowing that something better, and more authentic, might be waiting in Ann Arbor’s future. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.