If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

Reflections on the Death of an American Ambassador

With the breaking news this morning about the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the attacks on our missions in Egypt and Libya, and unexpectedly running into a diplomat friend twice over the past two days, the subject of diplomacy as a career choice has been on my mind quite a bit over the past 24 hours. In fact, diplomacy was a career which at one point I both studied and fully intended to embark upon – and, never say never, I have always been open to considering in the future. Yet despite what the public often thinks about a diplomatic career, that it is little more than one endless cocktail party out of some James Bond film, it is in fact a rather difficult life, based on the espousal and promotion of principle, which often involves a great deal of personal sacrifice.

My grandfather worked for the United Nations in South America during the 1960’s, and I grew up hearing from my mother about the experiences she had with him and my grandmother living in places like Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru, among others. This was part of my motivation for becoming interested in international politics, and why I wanted so very much to get into the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. There were other undergraduate universities I could have attended, but the Catholic roots of SFS – a school founded by a Jesuit priest and housed in a building named for another – really sealed the deal for me, when it came to selecting which institution would become my alma mater.

Once at school, I quickly obtained a part-time position with a diplomatic studies think tank, and set about trying to figure out the best way to graduate and end up in Europe, preferably Spain or Germany, for a diplomatic post upon graduation. I had visions of meeting and befriending interesting people in business, politics, and society in these places, trying to help our respective countries understand each other better for mutual benefit. In fact this was a view which I suspect was shared by quite a number of my classmates, since we were entering into uncharted waters, historically. The Soviet Union had only just recently collapsed; it looked as though Western values had finally triumphed and a new age of democracy and international cooperation was dawning.

Reality, of course, soon comes knocking when one imagines that any sort of career path is going to be easy. Within the first few days of orientation, I became acquainted with one of my classmates whose parents were both diplomats. He had lived all over the world, sometimes in rather exotic and unpleasant-sounding places, and possessed a kind of world-weary air combined with a love of British alternative music which I happened to share.

However over time I began to sense that having no permanent sense of home had left him intellectually bright but personally detached in some way. This was by no means an isolated case, but rather a pattern of personality which I often observed among the children of diplomats whom I befriended at college. It is of course unfair to speak in generalities, as no doubt there are plenty of well-adjusted diplomatic children. However I did hear repeatedly the lament that the constant moving about, having to leave old friends and make new ones, made it difficult for these children to form attachments, knowing they could rupture at any time.

Then of course apart from family strife, there is the danger for the diplomat that you will be sent to work in some horrid place in which you have absolutely no interest, and this is a very legitimate concern indeed if you are not someone who enjoys being far from civilization and organized agriculture. I have never wanted to ride a camel into a desert, nor trek through a rain forest, nor have a pee in a lean-to made out of aluminum siding, and I should hardly care to live in an environment where such things are not uncommon. In short, and with all due apologies to people who live in such places, if the local insects are generally the size of my hand, I will not be going there.

Academically I have always been more interested in Europe than in the other continents, and focused on it in my studies. This made the chances of their being a need for a fluent German speaker specializing in European economic integration or German foreign policy in off-putting corners of the world hopefully rather slim, at least in theory, if I did chose to follow the diplomatic route. Yet over time and meeting more diplomats, it became clear that this was not often the case. When you received your assignment, sometimes you got Paris, but sometimes you got the back of beyond – and frankly I’d rather not go there, thanks all the same.

Then yesterday and today on the way in to work, I ran into a friend in the diplomatic service whom I have not seen for some years, someone who is temporarily back in Washington for a few weeks before the next assignment overseas. I could not help but imagine, from the pure serendipity of the encounters, that my life might have turned out similarly, and there was a faint sense of something appealing about it, even with all of the potential drawbacks involved in living that life. At the same time of course, it is impossible not to think of the risks that career diplomats like my friend or Ambassador Stevens who, though the chances are extremely rare, can find themselves in, by the very nature of who they are and the offices they hold, and indeed by what they represent around the world.

Perhaps I am now at the age when I can appreciate that this is not such a bad thing, which in my late teens and early 20’s I would not have understood. I still want absolutely nothing to do with giant bugs of course, but as you grow older, and you come to not only understand but deeply appreciate the values behind our American form of democracy, you realize that promoting its interests abroad and encouraging others to follow in the good footsteps of our example is not such a bad thing. For however much we may at times fall short of living up to our own values and principles, as a nation we do actually believe in them, and keep striving to achieve and perfect them. It is our can-do attitude and sense of trying to give people a fair shake which makes us such a remarkably effective country around the world.

I think this is something Ambassador Stevens clearly understood, as he risked his life to work in such an extremely dangerous part of the world. He worked to communicate with the Libyan rebels as they sought to free themselves from the Gaddafi regime, and stayed on as the new Libyan state began to form out of the chaos of civil war, when he could so easily have asked to come home. His family ought to be proud, and his countrymen grateful, that he served his country so well.

So forget the black-tie balls and garden parties you see in Hollywood’s imagining of what diplomatic life is like. Instead, remember the example of those who, like Ambassador Stevens, put themselves into personal danger simply by representing your country in a different part of the world, far from home. For that is both a great position to hold, and a great responsibility to one’s nation.

Detail of “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein (1533)
National Gallery, London