Living Out Loud: : The Chain Gangs

Clifton knows what it doesn't want

After 33 years of being part of Clifton's Gaslight District, New World Book Store has closed its doors. No longer will I be able to go in and browse for books, look over their quirky card selection or just bullshit with the friendly people who worked there.

They were all excited about my book coming out. Now they're all busy looking for new jobs. Clifton's never going to be the same. It's sad. (See "As the World Turns," issue of Dec. 21-27.)

The chain bookstores — Joseph-Beth, Borders and Barnes & Noble — no doubt helped kill this independent seller. I'm not saying I've never been in these places, because I have. Their selection of books is far superior, but I never felt right about buying much, like I was "feeding the beast" in some way.

I'll be searching for a new independent bookstore soon. I figure privately owned bookstores need me more and, in turn, I get better service. I know that was always the case with New World.

We get better prices at the "chain gangs" on books, clothes, food, hardware and all the rest — there's no doubt about it. But there's a price to pay for that, namely communities losing their identity and small mom-andpop operations forced out of existence.

What I like about the Gaslight District is the resistance to chains. While there are a few, at least the people in Clifton know what they want and don't want in their community. There's no fear in speaking their mind.

While CityBeat has had its issues with the Esquire Theatre over the years (namely our film critic, Steve Ramos, is still banned from there because he told the truth about a scene they cut out of a movie), in the mid-1980s the theater was having difficulty in keeping their doors open. The Wendy's restaurant chain wanted to come to the rescue, gut the building and turn it into, you guessed it, another Wendy's. The residents of Clifton and the Clifton Town Meeting people kept them at bay and kept the Esquire open.

The theater is doing well. If it weren't for the people of Clifton, we'd be upsizing our biggie fries instead of buying movie tickets and popcorn.

Even the old apartment building I live in, The Roanoke, has come under the gun of chain operations. At one point, Burger Chef wanted to tear it down, and then Kroger wanted to level it and turn it into a super store. Clifton residents made it clear they wanted the grand old apartment building to stand and not have it replaced with a greasy hamburger smell or a large parking lot filled with grocery carts.

The Roanoke has been safe for a while now, but one can never rest too easy or turn your back for too long. Another chain will always come along to stir up trouble.

Sometimes I have nightmares that Wal-Mart will approach the owners of my apartment building and offer them and the community a price they can't refuse and turn the Gaslight District into something of their own — namely death all around it.

Communities often welcome this superstore. Why? They come in and strip small towns of their heritage, close small shops, pay their employees crap wages, offer little health insurance and sell cheap merchandise mostly made overseas.

Wal-Mart is truly the beast, and it does my heart good to see them in trouble lately. It restores my faith that people still remember how to stand up for themselves.

Why would you want to buy merchandise from a store that doesn't allow their employees a lunch break? In Oakland, Calif., a $172 million lawsuit was filed against them by employees, who won. The chain will appeal the decision and will have to spend money on more legal bills, similar to 40 other lawsuits in other states.

And then there's that sexual discrimination charge. More than 1.6 million current or former female employees are asking for damages because Wal-Mart pays them less than their male counterparts. What an outfit.

While Wal-Mart isn't yet banging down the door in Clifton, another chain recently has — and I'm proud to say they lost.

Starbucks wanted to open one of their cookie-cutter operations in the Gaslight District some months back. Residents including the owner of Sitwell's Coffee Shop, Lisa Storie, made it clear their burnt-tasting coffee wasn't welcome in the area.

I can't imagine Starbucks trying to come in and replace Sitwell's, but the corporate mind knows no limits. I'm glad the residents' outcry killed this idea quickly.

But wait, New World Bookstore is now vacant. Just remember: You can't turn your back on the chain gangs for too long.



CONTACT LARRY GROSS: lgross(at)citybeat.com. His new collection of short stories, Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Stories, can be ordered through Amazon.com and will be in bookstores in January. LIVING OUT LOUD runs every week at citybeat.com and the second issue of each month in the paper.

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