Friday, February 06, 2009
This forthcoming post may be interesting only to me or Birmingham-area residents, but I'd like to talk about this in any case.
As a child of the mid to late eighties, I remember that my home town had six grocery store chains: Bruno's, Food World (owned by Bruno's), Winn-Dixie, Western, Piggly Wiggly, and Delchamps. Bruno's was a proud city institution, Piggly Wiggly was an archtypical southern fixture, Winn-Dixie held much the same reknown, Delchamps was a recent arrival from South Alabama, and Western held sway another local chain with a decidedly blue collar feel to it. Many, if not most of the retail outlets in the town of my childhood were locally-based, aside from the biggest names.
Back then, Birmingham retained a kind of business provincialism that was displaced by competition and the rise of out-of-state corporations. When the early nineties recession receded and the long boom of the later nineties swelled, I began to notice the introduction of chain stores previously familar only to other parts of the country. Speaking specifically about supermarkets, most of these stores were undermined and undone by the rise of two major factors, two recent arrivals---Publix, an overachieving Florida chain that worked its way up from Florida, and the dreaded Wal-Mart, whose decision to expand to include grocery stores in its stores proved to be too much of a temptation for shoppers.
Delchamps went out of business in the early nineties. Winn-Dixie had to file for bankruptcy in the early part of this decade, though it still manages to limp through uneasily and has only a handful of stores currently open. Western pared back considerably itself and runs half the number of stores that were around twenty-five years ago. Piggly Wiggly has eked out an meager existence, though it has opened no new stores and I'm sure clings to its share of the market, hanging on by its fingernails. Now, Bruno's has had to file for its second bankruptcy.
The old icons of my childhood are rapidly going away. Local businesses are being replaced by larger chains. To cite another example, the drug stores of my youth were never CVS or Walgreens, instead they were Big B or Eckerd, both of which are out of business, swallowed by larger players. Each decent sized city used to have a unique flavor to it and every year I see it less and less. Sure, some of these changes are for the better. The reason these smaller stores failed, in part, was their inability to keep up with the times. Many of them believed that they could have kept doing things the same way forever without acknowledging that change is not necessarily an evil. Even so, there's always been something deeply disturbing to me about the possibility that we all soon might eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, shop at the same places, and drive to the same theaters in the same cars.