Moore Thoughts: Chains are Bad, Except the Ones I Like

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Let's ban big guys, but...did someone say something about Brooks Brothers?

This city has a love-hate relationship with chain stores. Again and again, pols and labor advocates say no to Walmart; after all, sometimes a party is defined by who's not invited. As in so many matters, though, one's stand on chains is not always consistent. We like what we like. We all have our favorites-and our weaknesses.

This was on my mind again last week. I was on my way to one chain when I got to thinking about another. Duane Reade was my planned stop. Yes, I've found the one pleasant Duane Reade employee-a pharmacist worth supporting.

Let me interrupt my tale right there. Already I need to stop and defend myself. See, I shopped at the cute independent pharmacy for years, the one heralded in newspaper accounts and customer service reports. I even wrote one of those stories myself. The problem with the neighborhood drugstore: the pharmacist hardly ever started work on my prescriptions until after I arrived to pick them up. The folks there lied about when my order was ready. That should be a capital offense.

So I'm with the big ugly Duane Reade now. That makes me feel sheepish and ashamed, except when I'm at the updated 72nd Street Duane Reade, buying Ronnybrook strawberry yogurt. Yummy.

Last week, on the way to an uptown location, I saw the huge signs in the window on Broadway at 87th Street. "The future home of Brooks Brothers," said the words. I'm would-be-preppie enough to consider this fabulous news. Whether I can actually buy something once this store arrives remains a question for another day; I can certainly browse.

Ours is increasingly a city of drugstores and banks. There's a sense of lost charm, especially on the Upper West Side, where recently unveiled retail limits have been making news. The New York Times has reported more than once on the city's new plans to erect a "firewall" to discourage chain stores. The proposal means limiting the ground-floor width of all new stores to 40 feet, at least on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. Broadway is a largely lost cause, although the new rule on banks, permitting a maximum of 25 feet, would count there too.

Not everyone believes in these changes. The New York Post had a headline screaming about "Twilight Zoning." Some argue that the banks and the drugstores are meeting existing needs-especially from affluent newcomers. Indeed, nobody can force anyone to shop anywhere. Commercial districts evolve. There's still something called free enterprise.

The problem: It's not a fair fight. The big guys buy in bulk and benefit from increasing political power. At least the new plan would balance the scales a tiny bit. West Side Council Member Gale Brewer, a key figure behind the new limits, understands both the tenor of the times and the people she represents. Since there are still a handful of small, distinct stores worth fighting for, Brewer and the Bloomberg administration deserve credit for taking their shot. It might work and it might not. But the exciting thing about the West Side action is that it's, well, action. There are worse things than public officials listening to the public.

This isn't just an issue for West Siders. Some East Village community activists are looking at the West Side initiative as a model. If it works, this campaign will spread. On the Upper East Side, I can count at least a couple of surviving independent bookstores worth worrying about. How refreshing in this big city to have important political players advocating for adorable little shops-and the people who love them.

Speaking of adorable little stores, I'm going to stop in to a few on my way to Brooks Brothers.

Christopher Moore is a writer living in Manhattan. He is available by email at and on Twitter


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