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When word spread that the 34-year-old Midtown Pharmacy in Adams Morgan was closing its doors in March this year, Pat Patrick, president of the Adams-Morgan Business and Professional Association, told the Washington Post, “This is like taking one of our limbs away.” Patrick’s comments came in a mushy article bemoaning the decline of the mom-and-pop store and the proliferation of ugly chain outlets. Unfounded rumors circulated that Starbucks planned to open in the Midtown space, and the neighbors were spewing venom. “I hope Starbucks or whoever comes in there goes broke,” octogenarian Josephine Kelly fumed to the Post.
The Midtown’s death came amid citywide hand-wringing over the “Starbucking” of Washington. Palisades residents caused a yearlong uproar over the closing of the MacArthur Boulevard theater and its takeover by yet another CVS, the chain that had already cannibalized the sacred Biograph theater. But all the gnashing over the death of the mom-and-pop store are the froth of mostly well-heeled white people who have the luxury of paying too much for toothpaste in order to maintain a certain neighborhood aesthetic.
What the hand-wringers often fail to mention is the reason many of those mom-and-pop stores are dying out: They suck. It’s time the city faced up to the fact that chain stores are our friends, and that the good ol’ days of mom-and-pop stores are as much a part of urban myth as the Georgetown Metro stop.
For six years I lived in Woodley Park, a neighborhood with a model blend of residential and commercial zoning. The little shopping strip along Connecticut Avenue had all the things you’d want from a neighborhood: dry cleaners, banks, a stationery store, ethnic restaurants, a drugstore, a liquor store, hair salons, a yoga studio, and even a furrier. What it didn’t have, and desperately needed, was some place where you could grab a cup of coffee and a bagel on the way to work.
For about two years, an empty space next to the NationsBank carried signs promising “Opening Soon: Caffe Northwest.” We waited and waited, and waited. After what seemed like a decade, Caffe Northwest finally did open, with all the trappings of an “independent” coffee housethe requisite local artwork, the used checkerboards. Finally, we could get a latte to go. It wasn’t long, though, before I started dreaming of a “dependent” cafe, like Starbucks.
Caffe Northwest was a great incentive to buy an espresso machine and a breadmaker. Never in any big hurry, the cashiers seemed to turn over daily, and they barely knew how to operate the register, much less steam milk. The thorniest management problem for Caffe Northwest staffers was making change. On any given Sunday morning, people holding bills larger than $5 would be unable to purchase anything in the store. Change wasn’t the only thing they ran out of. Frequently Caffe Northwest would run out of cups. Tourists from the local hotels, many of them foreigners, were completely perplexed by handmade signs with marker-drawn pictures of bagels that were supposed to illustrate the breakfast specials.
In that quaint mom-and-pop way, Caffe Northwest also didn’t seem to have much of a handle on health regulations. They’d leave cream cheese packets out in an arty little basketunchilled, so when you opened them the cheese would be sweating with who knows what kinds of microbes. Finally, the whole operation collapsed under its own weight and declared bankruptcy in March. The new “Cafe Internationale” that has replaced it is pretty much the same thing, only with a better soda cooler.
On a Monday morning this month, the MacArthur Boulevard CVS sparkles with new carpeting and high ceilings. Curling irons, remote controls, rabbit ears for better reception, salon-quality shampoo, picture frames, and Christmas decorations go on for what seems like miles. A few Hispanic nannies push strollers occupied by towheaded toddlers, checking prices on diapers. An elderly woman shuffles her coupons as she heads toward the checkout counter, where a man dressed like a Kodak box is preparing film for the one-hour photo machine. The store’s general manager says it’s doing “better than expected.”
A guy named Randy who works in the neighborhood says today is his first visit to the store. “It’s just like any other CVS,” he says with a laugh. Not so for the members of the Palisades Civic Association, who are boycotting the outlet because it had the nerve to occupy the now-defunct MacArthur theater. The Palisades activists fret over problems with parking and fear that the giant CVS will sink their beloved 45-year-old MacArthur Care Drugstore, a few doors down.
The shelves at MacArthur Care are classic mom-and-pop, full of dusty items, hand-priced. The place sells granny underwear, a random assortment of medical supplies, and spiral notebooks. It doesn’t sparkle, but it does have a pop, Ron Goldstone, head pharmacist. He is, naturally, a big supporter of the CVS boycott. “CVS doesn’t do UPS. They don’t have house accounts. They don’t do notary,” he says, explaining why customers love his store. “We’ll match any of their prices.” He says the CVS hasn’t affected his business at all; the neighbors are loyal.
MacArthur Care may be able to coexist peacefully next to CVS, but it’s unlikely that people will completely bypass the chain store in favor of MacArthur Care. Thrift tests loyalty. Take a critical item like tampons: Goldstone’s selection is terribleall supersizeand a dollar more a box than the ones at CVS. Goldstone is a nice guy, but when it comes down to it, who really needs notary services? People go to the drugstore for ordinary essentials. Therein lies the appeal of the chain store: When you need something mundane, the chain store gives you what you wantand then someat a reasonable price. Store character isn’t that important when you need toilet paper.
Disorganization, inefficiency, and lack of selection are the hallmarks of the nonchain store, but customers are supposed to put up with these things because they give a mom-and-pop store “character.” Maybe it’s a symptom of modern life, but most people aren’t interested in standing around to chat with the bagel lady at Caffe Northwest while she fiddles with the broken toaster. They just want their food, dammit.
There’s also something kind of comforting in the sterile efficiency offered by the chain store. There’s no pressure for small talk, and the anonymity can be a welcome relief. Drugstore shopping, for instance, can be a most intimate exchange. For a teenager buying a pregnancy test, presenting the goods to the interchangeable unfriendly faces in red CVS vests is much easier than offering up the bad news to Ron Goldstone, who probably knows her father. There’s no chance that a CVS clerk is going to inquire after your hemorrhoids in front of a line full of your neighbors, and he won’t look twice at a basket full of Magnum condoms, Fleet enemas, and K-Y jelly.
Let’s face it: The romance of the mom-and-pop store is mainly sentimental shlock that isn’t based on reality. The Midtown Pharmacy died of its own will, not because of any evil chain store. Its aging owner just called it quits. The other independent pharmacies that have disappeared over the past few years are largely failing because of cost-cutting pressure from managed care, not competition from chain stores. And while MacArthur Care may be quaint and friendly, it’s a rarity. The average mom-and-pop store in this city is a small corner grocery with a Class B liquor license. Some independent stores in D.C. sell the things the chains won’t: crack bags, malt liquor, porno movies. Their profits come from pathology: lottery tickets, liquor, cigarettes, and a few items that make the food-stamp list.
Few people in an inner-city neighborhood would argue that their corner market is an integral part of the neighborhood fabric. They see those stores as blights that attract the criminal element, and the racial tension between Asian merchants and black customers in some of those stores is frighteningly palpable. When the new Safeway opened on Alabama Avenue SE, it was a godsend, not an invasion.
And you can bet if a Red Lobster threatened to annex Yum’s Carry-Out, Anacostia residents would respond by making reservations, not organizing boycotts.CP