For some years now, my favorite place to find a big old homemade slab of pie has been an unassuming mom-and-pop restaurant called Walker’s Pie Shop, not far from where I live. It’s the sort of place that hasn’t changed in decades. Its decor, such as it is, evokes the home-improvement hit parade of another era: asphalt tile, Formica-topped tables, Masonite paneling, and glossy oil paint.
Oddly enough, this very lack of pretense is what makes Walker’s stand apart. It’s quite clear that no corporate consultants came up with its cheerfully jarring vanilla-orange-vanilla color scheme. There are no fake old books on high shelves, no copper muffin pans or reprints of old French bicycle posters hanging on the walls. In short, there’s none of the strained quirkiness that comes from decor specified down to the last jot by some corporate guidebook. Instead — now here’s a concept — there’s plain old good eating: a whole roster of big, old-fashioned pies baked up each morning right in the back of the shop.
Sad to say, unassuming mom-and-pop establishments such as Walker’s are increasingly rare these days. Some are, of course, being squeezed out by corporate chains with more sophisticated business models. While it’s pointless to denigrate this kind of success, its economic downside is well known: Profits that used to stay in the community instead go flitting to some distant headquarters, to be divvied up among faceless investors instead of by the family down the street.
But there’s another, more tangible problem with the steady corporate takeover of Main Street business. Beholden as they are to shareholders, the chains are all but obligated to repeat ad nauseum the formula that’s brought them success. This robotic repetition of a profitable concept, regardless of regional setting, is among the main culprits behind the increasing sameness of America’s built environment, whether urban or suburban.
Retail chains of one sort or another are nothing new, of course. Among the first businesses widely built to a corporate template were gasoline filling stations, whose highly specialized architecture and signage were already being standardized well before World War II. But the real juggernaut of corporate standardization was the McDonald’s hamburger empire, founded by Ray Kroc in 1955, and now operating more than 31,000 restaurants in 119 countries.
The phenomenal success of McDonald’s has since been the model for countless food, retail and service chains — good news for shareholders, so-so news for consumers, but generally bad news for the American landscape. Today, pretty much every shopping center across the nation contains some musical-chairs variant of the same familiar chain outlets, whether they sell food, clothing or coffee. Ironically, some genuinely local establishments now feel pressure to adopt the same slick corporate atmosphere just to remain competitive.
As for Walker’s Pie House, alas, it too is closing its doors — a victim, perhaps, of economic times, or simply of its more calibrated competition. A new restaurant calling itself a "bistro" is slated to replace it. Let’s hope it doesn’t serve up another trendy helping of "Anywhere U.S.A."
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