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The Homogenization of America

June 24, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

On every street

It's the homogenization of America, where the same chain restaurants and big box megacenters sell the same goods and services in town after town. But does having the same modern conveniences replicated in city after city rub out the small businesses that create the individual character and charm of areas like Hagerstown?

Charlie Startzman welcomes a steady stream of customers into his South Potomac Street hardware store on a sunny late spring afternoon.

Some he helps find locks and nails. Others leave unfulfilled in their quest for home improvement staples.

The phone rings. Sorry, he says, the second generation hardware man can't help the caller.

So Startzman hangs up, re-clipping the cordless receiver to his right hip and waits for the next customer to enter his store.

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Business is strong, as good as its been since his father opened the business in 1959. This despite being sandwiched between two big box home improvement giants: Three miles as the car drives to Lowe's on Wesel Boulevard; four miles to Home Depot at the Centre at Hagerstown.

Loss of local identity

In cities and towns across the country, the homogenization of America threatens to snuff out local identities built up in part by generations visiting the same small shops and restaurants where everyone seems to be on a first name basis.

"You do lose something when those businesses go," admits Kathleen Maher, senior planner for the city of Hagerstown. "It's a whole way of life that goes away."

Every town seems to feature the same big box retailers and malls with franchises and department stores, a staple of suburbia from Manchester, Conn., to Monterey, Calif.

So close to two large competitors, with Wal-Mart also at the two-year-old Centre, conventional wisdom would have Startzman's business stomped into obsolescence like so many ants at a picnic.

But a funny thing happened on the way to hanging an out-of-business sign in the window: Startzman, and others in similar situations, hasn't had to.

Sure, small businesses fold all the time as evidenced by empty storefronts along West Washington Street.

But so too have Montgomery Ward's at Valley Mall and Rickel's on Northern Avenue.

Nobody's forecasting the imminent demise of the chain store, though.

"It all comes down to focusing your market. I don't care what you are, where you are, how big you are, if you don't have a focus on the market you want to capture, don't open the door because you're going to be in trouble," says Jim Baker, owner of North Potomac Street men's shop Hoffman Clothiers.

"Anyone can open a store and fill it up with merchandise. That's easy. You just better find a way to sell it."

Chains may offer convenience and speed, but customers think of Startzman, Baker and others of their kind as a security blanket providing comfort and a personalized service impossible to replicate at their larger counterparts.

Quality not quantity

In a half-hour, Startzman strikes up a conversation with every person who enters his shop, emerging from behind the cash register to help them locate what they're looking for.

Baker scans the newspaper for news on business people who have been promoted, then sends each a letter letting them know where to turn for dresswear.

He is well aware that his small store is a dinosaur, but it's one that will deliver, provide on-site tailoring and add an insert to a tie so it fits a taller man.

Dinosaur? Maybe. Relic? Not so fast.

"We don't have customers we have clients, we have friends. They know us, they know they can depend on us," Baker says. "It's elementary to us. It's not something we started to do to keep us alive. It's something we do because we've always done it."

Typically, chain stores will congregate along highways where easy access and a prominent location can translate into more sales from a far-flung clientele.

To put a chain into the middle of a downtown setting is fairly unusual, says Richard L. Kautz, director of the city department of planning since 1978.

Tourist areas such as the Annapolis waterfront can support a Gap, for instance.

Other areas have sought to establish a tone by signing contracts with well-known retailers dictating how their businesses will look. The Village at Waugh Chapel (in Crofton, Md.) mixed-use development features chain restaurants, grocery stores and retailers whose faades are meant to elicit a small town main street feeling.

Kautz says Hagerstown aims to preserve its character through streetscape improvements and fostering the small businesses that can more easily afford paying rent downtown rather than at a mall.

Downtown incubator

"In a small community like ours, the downtown needs to be a small business incubator because the rents are lower so startup costs are less," he says.

"There's also a downside of it because they tend to be people that are poorly capitalized, and when they decide they've had too much or decide to retire, their business closes. It's a cycle and has no relation to the fact that it's downtown."

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