America / Business

“The fight to save Main Street, then as now, was less about the price of goods gained than the cost of autonomy lost”

…nostalgia for Main Street is misplaced — and costly. Small stores are inefficient. Local manufacturers, lacking access to economies of scale, usually are inefficient as well. To live in that kind of world is expensive.

This nostalgia, like the frustration that underlies it, has a long and instructive history. Years before deindustrialization, years before Nafta, Americans were yearning for a Main Street that never quite existed.

For a few decades in the 19th century, Main Street store owners were a viable engine of American economic growth, selling to local residents and people in surrounding rural areas. But that hasn’t been the case ever since. In the 1920s, a new and more efficient kind of retail emerged, the chain store, which sealed Main Street’s decline. Main Street retailers had been under assault for decades from national mail-order catalogs like Sears, Roebuck, but it was the chain store, typified by A. & P. and Woolworth’s, that vanquished small-town commerce. These stores, buying in volume, could offer low prices that local shops couldn’t match. National manufacturers, through chain stores, delivered goods that were cheaper than ever before. Small-town manufacturing and retail looked like a thing of the past.

A political uproar ensued. The fight to save Main Street, then as now, was less about the price of goods gained than the cost of autonomy lost.

Louis Hyman, “The Myth Of Main Street”, The New York Times (9 April 2017), SR4.